Brian Blum
November 20, 2022, Updated November 22, 2022

Climate change getting you down? Time to turn those lemons into lemonade.

Or in the case of Israeli startup Carbonade, to take excess carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and turn it into usable carbon-based byproducts like plastic, building materials and even detergent.

Carbonade CEO Raanan Shelach explains that Carbonade is “duplicating what plants have been practicing for millions of years – photosynthesis.”

The novel technology, developed by Prof. Ronny Neumann at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, uses an electrochemical cell to mix captured CO2 with water, electricity and low-cost metals.

Captured CO2 from air can be made into green fuel
Prof Ronny Neumann of the Weizmann Institute. Photo courtesy of Carbonade

This produces a chemical reaction that separates the carbon and oxygen molecules. The freed carbon molecules then become volatile and seek out other compounds with which to bind.

That’s how “we will be able to create carbon products basically made out of air,” Shelach tells ISRAEL21c.

The process is similar to what happens in a battery or fuel cell, “although instead of producing electricity, we take in electricity,” ideally from renewable sources, Shelach says. Therefore, the process remains carbon neutral.

How it saves the planet

Carbonade holds planet-saving potential in two areas.

First, by removing from the air some of the 40 gigatons of carbon responsible for much of global warming. Two-thirds of that carbon is captured naturally by forests and oceans. The remaining third is causing our heated-up, weather-unpredictable Earth.

Second, by turning the captured carbon into products whose creation would otherwise use even more carbon – and not necessarily from a sustainable source.

The Carbonade cell is compact, modular and can be stacked to create more bang for the buck for customers.

Capture it, upcycle it

Carbonade will separate the CO2 components but does not capture the CO2 from the air. That first step can be accomplished with a variety of technologies.

One method, direct air capture, is typically used to capture CO2 in order to bury it in the ground. That helps the atmosphere but wastes all the carbon.

Captured CO2 from air can be made into green fuel
Yehuda Borenstein, founder of RepAir and chairman of Carbonade. Photo courtesy of Carbonade

Yehuda Borenstein, founder of Israeli direct air capture startup RepAir, is chairman of Carbonade. The two companies’ synchrony assures that the captured carbon isn’t lost but is upcycled into new products.

RepAir, which aims to have its first commercial facility set up in Iceland by 2025, uses electricity to separate CO2 from air through a selective membrane. Clean air goes back into the atmosphere while CO2 streams out for storage or utilization by a company such as Carbonade.

RepAir CEO Amir Shiner notes that the problem of climate change “was caused by technological development, but technological development will also solve it.”

RepAir, he adds, is “on the front line, and it’s a hard front. People tell me we’re trying to dry out the ocean with a teaspoon.”

Once the carbon is separated (whether by RepAir or another company), it can be shipped to a Carbonade facility anywhere. To avoid burning fossil fuels to ship it, not to mention the risk of some of the gases leaking out during transport, Shelach advocates co-locating direct air capture units at a Carbonade installation.

Seeding climate-positive change

Carbon, it’s important to point out, is not inherently “bad.” Carbon, the sixth most common element on earth, can be found naturally in our food and in our own bodies.

But when we generate carbon-based products from fossil fuels such as with gasoline, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And too much CO2 is very bad.

Captured CO2 from air can be made into green fuel
Carbonade CEO Raanan Shelach. Photo by Maya Neeman

Shelach’s Air Force background pushed him in the direction of acting against climate change.

“I’ve seen how the climate has impacted our way of life,” he says, recalling the barren deserts and dried-up waterways he’s observed from flying over the Middle East.

While the technical activity behind Carbonade takes place at the Weizmann Institute, Shelach works nearby from a home office. A work situation that doesn’t involve a polluting vehicle “fits my philosophy of life,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

Furthermore, the company’s technology has only minimal energy requirements and operates at ambient temperature, “so there’s no need for pre-heating or special tools to stimulate a reaction.”

The components of the electrochemical cell – the anode, cathode and membrane – are based on off-the-shelf components and don’t include precious metals, such as gold and silver.

Each cell can operate “for thousands of hours. All told, the electricity needed, the cost of the cell and the hours of operation all help this make sense commercially,” Shelach says.

Pilots and partners

Carbonade is in the process of funding a pre-seed round and has a lab-scale version of the technology. Shelach hopes to have a full prototype in 12 to 18 months.

“From here we will start conducting pilots and will deepen collaboration with potential partners and customers,” Shelach says.

Carbonade’s customers will be “someone who wants to make a product, not just a utility or a power plant.” This includes players in the energy sector along with facilities producing chemicals and metal fabrication factories.

Ultimately, Carbonade’s technology may have applications beyond Planet Earth: The atmosphere of Mars is 95% CO2. So, if humans someday want to settle the Red Planet (we’re looking at you, Elon Musk), generating carbon off-world could create everything from energy to protein and building materials.

That may be pie in the sky, but the impetus to make something positive out of excess CO2 is immediate.

“We can’t wait for the government or politicians to take initiatives,” Shelach says. “When it comes to climate change, I want people to know that the time to act is now.”

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Earth, technology, climate change, Carbonade, RepAir Carbon Capture

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