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These Carbon Removal Startups Are Turning Everyday Materials Into the Foundation of Our Climate Future

June 8, 2023

· 3 min read
The Elemental Team

Concrete. Lime. Sand. What do these things all have in common? They’re everywhere — in our walls, our coastlines, our roads and our soils. And thanks to the ingenuity of a new wave of carbon removal solutions, they could become the building blocks for a carbon-free future.

CarbonCure’s Rob Niven, Origen’s Ben Turner and Vesta’s Kelly Erhart  joined Elemental at Interactive 2023 — our annual convening of investors, technologists and changemakers — to discuss how to scale untapped carbon removal solutions. Here are a few key insights.

Solutions are all around us

Vesta Co-Founder & President Kelly Erhart shared that we need to increase the scale of CO2 removal by a factor of about 10 million to limit global warming. It’s a tall order, but the foundation for gigaton carbon removal can be found all around us.

“We need solutions that can scale without using too much land, energy or freshwater,” Kelly said. Her company is turning shorelines into a carbon-removing powerhouse with sand made of the mineral olivine. With rising sea levels threatening communities and ecosystems, Vesta’s solution serves a dual purpose of climate resiliency and shoreline restoration. “Every year in the United States alone, more than 60 million tons of sand are brought to coastlines to protect and restore them,” Kelly said. “With our sand we can make these coastal adaptation efforts carbon removing.”

CarbonCure, a company out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, takes a different approach to carbon removal, looking to a notorious carbon emitter and the world’s most common building material: concrete. CarbonCure’s technology permanently stores captured CO2 into concrete and makes the material stronger in the process.

The company’s Founder & CEO Rob Niven explained the world’s building stock is expected to double in the next 40 years — essentially constructing a new New York City every 30 days — and most of this infrastructure will be built with concrete. “What I dream of is how every one of the world’s 125,000 concrete plants is equipped with technology that allows it to actually consume CO2.”

Another novel carbon-removal approach comes from Origen, which uses a simple chemical reaction to decarbonize the production of lime. This abundant mineral, which touches everything from steel production to water filters, becomes a dual-benefit climate solution thanks to its natural ability to absorb CO2.

“This mineral is really hungry for carbon dioxide,” CEO Ben Turner said. “It’s an elegant, simple solution, synonymous with our daily life.”

The secret to scale: community

Scaling any climate solution requires as much collaboration as innovation. CarbonCure found that when it comes to partners, bigger isn’t always better.

“Our greatest achievements have all happened by working in local communities with regional customers,” Rob said. “Not by going after the biggest logo in the room, but by working community by community and creating those quantifiable and highly visible success stories.”

For Vesta, understanding community perspectives and involving local people in decision making are vital components of the company’s approach to deployment. This is especially important when carbon-removing technologies involve elements people are likely to have strong emotional connections to, such as the ocean and shorelines.

“For climate solutions to really scale, we know that both climate and community have to win. That’s why we’ve embedded this principle into our DNA since the very beginning,” Kelly said.

Vesta also worked to ensure proceeds from its work were directed by the community, which led to training for a women’s group to develop new textile businesses and support their families in the face of dwindling fish yields.

Find more from Elemental Interactive 2023 at our YouTube page.