There’s a new local entrant in the global decarbonization race: Culver City-based cleantech startup Mote Inc.
On Dec. 15, Mote unveiled plans for a $100 million gasification plant on 5 acres of land in unincorporated Kern County to extract carbon dioxide from wood waste.
To build the plant, Mote intends to team up with Irving, Texas-based engineering and construction firm Fluor Corp. and SunGas Renewables, a subsidiary of Des Plaines, Ill.-based GTI International Inc. that makes gasification systems.
Assuming the project team is able to secure financing and obtain the necessary government approvals and permits, construction could begin toward the end of 2022, and the plant could start operations sometime in 2024.
For Mote, this will be the first real-world application for its approach to decarbonization, one that goes beyond just capturing and storing carbon and tries to tap into multiple markets.
Some of the carbon dioxide would be stored underground, where it could generate credits that industrial companies could buy to meet carbon emission reduction mandates. The company is also looking to sell some of the carbon dioxide to concrete producers, who would inject it into their concrete.
Mote also intends to sell one of the byproducts of this carbon extraction process — hydrogen gas — to hydrogen fuel station operators.
Many other carbon extraction companies have arisen over the past decade or so, with several — including Westwood-based CarbonBuilt Inc. — targeting markets to reuse and store the extracted carbon. But Mote is one of a few that aim to target several markets at once.
Mote co-founder and Chief Executive Patrick “Mac” Kennedy sees the hydrogen fuel market as the company’s most unique niche.
“As the world’s first carbon removal project converting biomass to hydrogen, we are addressing the ever-growing demand for renewable hydrogen with a carbon-negative approach,” Kennedy said in the company’s announcement.
In an interview with the Business Journal, Kennedy, a serial entrepreneur, said he first launched a carbon extraction business under the Mote name in 2017, which targeted the heavy-duty truck market.
But after a series of discussions Kennedy had with his friend, Joshuah Stolaroff, an environmental scientist who ran the carbon capture program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Kennedy pivoted to the current multimarket approach for carbon extraction products in early 2020. Stolaroff year joined the fledgling venture earlier this as chief technology officer.
The pair looked around for a carbon-based source that could serve as the input for the carbon extraction and found a cheap, plentiful one in wood waste. There’s plenty of manmade wood waste, including a supply from building demolitions and agricultural operations. But by far, the most common wood waste source is dead trees in forests in California and elsewhere.
In California alone, nearly 150 million trees died between 2010 and 2019 because of drought, bark beetle infestations, wildfires and other causes, according to the University of California’s journal “California Agriculture.” These dead trees have become an increasingly urgent concern for both state officials and electric utility executives who are trying to reduce the risk of massive and devastating wildfires.
“We hope to create a market for unburned wood waste coming from forests,” Kennedy told the Business Journal.
Burned wood waste is unusable for carbon extraction purposes since the act of burning releases the carbon.
In Mote’s gasification process, the wood waste is heated to nearly 1,500 degrees, which releases the carbon dioxide and hydrogen gases. Then, a chemical solvent is used to separate out the carbon dioxide and hydrogen from each other. The carbon dioxide gas is then piped either to an underground storage facility or directly into trucks for transport to concrete producers. The hydrogen gas is piped into specialized trucks for transport to hydrogen fueling stations.
When operating at full capacity, the plant is expected to produce approximately 7,000 metric tons of hydrogen and remove 150,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air annually. That’s equivalent to removing more than 32,000 cars off the road.
Funding for fuel
Mote must still obtain a number of government approvals for the project and then will need to obtain construction financing. The company in the fall raised $1.1 million in seed funding for its own operations as it goes through these next steps.
Among the investors were San Francisco-based socially conscious investment firm Preston-Werner Ventures and London-based Counteract Partners Ltd., which invests in carbon removal technologies. Kennedy said the company is in discussions with these and other investors for follow-on funding.
The company also hopes to win funding from a $50 million hydrogen fuel generation fund set up last year by the state and administered through Pasadena’s Calstart, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting clean transportation technologies. And the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill that was enacted this past fall contains $8 billion in support for “clean hydrogen hubs” around the nation.
Kennedy also said Mote plans to seek out customers for the carbon and hydrogen products from the gasification plant among the industrial companies that tap into the state’s carbon credit market to meet state-mandated carbon-emission reduction targets. Among these industrial companies are concrete and cement producers.
He said the company is in talks with Halifax, Nova Scotia-based Carbon Cure Technologies Inc., a company similar to CarbonBuilt that is developing a technology to inject carbon dioxide into concrete, thereby locking in the carbon. If a deal could be worked out, Carbon Cure could become a regular customer for the carbon dioxide extract produced at the Kern County plant.
“CarbonCure applauds Mote as it enters the market with its innovative hydrogen production process. Curbing climate change requires creative, complementary solutions to scale up carbon removal rapidly,” Robert Niven, CarbonCure’s chief executive, said in the Dec. 15 announcement. “We look forward to an ongoing collaboration,” he added.
As for the hydrogen fuel, Kennedy said that the fact that it is produced in a process that removes carbon dioxide gives it a negative carbon score, which helps fuel station operators meet the state’s low carbon fuel standard.
“This is what separates our hydrogen fuel out from other producers,” Kennedy said.
Besides obtaining construction financing, Mote’s biggest challenge is likely to be coordinating supply chains on both ends of its planned business model.
“Their biggest challenge is supply chains: They are bringing two different businesses together into a single supply chain,” said Roger Aines, chief scientist of the energy program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
“On the input side, they will have to get large quantities of wood from dead trees in forests under contract and then transport that wood waste to their Kern County plant,” Aines said. “Then, once the wood has been gasified, they have to have contracts to transport those gases either to a storage site or to a (hydrogen) fuel station. That’s a tremendous amount of coordinating of supply chains.”
Aines said this all might be made easier as more government funding pours into this sector.
“The state is definitely interested in making all these things happen,” he said.