Welcome to Part 3 of our series "What Would Dolly Parton Do: 9 To 5 in the Climate Tech Sector"! This week, we’re diving into Twelve, a startup focusing on creating chemicals from air instead of fossil fuels. As I wrote this week’s newsletter, Dolly’s classic "Better Get to Livin’" kept playing on repeat in my head. As a climate professional, I often hear that many support the fight against the climate crisis but don’t want to give up their current quality of life. And Twelve embodies the definition of "better get to livin’" by allowing people to use the products they want without affecting the environment so drastically.
This Berkeley, California-based startup is looking to shake up the status quo of how things are made. These "things" range from sunglasses to car parts to equipment for NASA. But why is this important? Thank you for asking that excellent question.
When different products are made, fossil fuel-derived petrochemicals serve as a main ingredient due to its carbon-heavy makeup. The International Energy Agency released a global report on petrochemicals listing plastics, fertilizers, packaging, clothing, digital devices, medical equipment, detergents and tires, among others, as commodities reliant upon petrochemicals for assembly. However, co-founders Kendra Kuhl, CTO, and Etosha Cave, CSO, discovered an alternative option in an electrochemical reactor that cuts fossil fuels out of the equation completely. Heidi Lim, director of product ecosystems at Twelve, broke down how this reactor works.
"Our technology transforms carbon dioxide and water molecules using renewable energy. We split up and then rearrange molecules into building blocks that are typically made from fossil fuels."
Lim dubs the process industrial photosynthesis. (Don’t worry if you have to pause to remember what your high school science class taught you about photosynthesis. I did, too.) Via a membrane, "[Twelve] is making a CO2 electrolyzer … and doing what plants do; we’re taking water and CO2, just like plants, and using that and some form of energy, solar or wind, and using that to make these new chemicals."
Essentially, the electricity separates the CO2 and water, and the membrane allows for the separated elements to be recombined into different chemicals. This entire process is housed in a reactor that can be installed in any industrial system, using the CO2 byproduct from the system itself, or using carbon dioxide captured from the air, or even using CO2 released from landfills, according to Lim. Either way, unnecessary CO2 is used in a manner that completely cuts out petrochemical use.
From this technology, many products have been reborn as CO2Made, including PANGAIA Sunglasses, Mercedes car parts, Tide detergent ingredients and the latest reveal — jet fuel. In a CNBC interview, Twelve’s third co-founder and CEO, Nicholas Flanders, said that CO2Made jet fuel is compatible with existing engines and has 90 percent lower emissions than conventional jet fuel.
In addition to Twelve’s impressive technology, Lim was proud to highlight the company’s commitment to equitable hiring and diversity of thought: "We care a lot about diversity here, and it comes directly from the founders." Lim explained that Twelve is an extremely collaborative work environment and thus benefits from as many perspectives as possible.
Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts on both ends (my flight into California was delayed nine hours, and unfortunately meetings had to be rescheduled. But at least United gave me a $100 credit, right? Right?!) prevented me from speaking directly to Twelve’s trio of co-founders. But the technology, employee camaraderie and constant flow of exciting funding announcements and partnerships serve as a glowing indication of leadership quality.
Okay, and that’s Twelve! Next week will wrap up our series, but until then, here’s a clip of Dolly Parton hosting "Saturday Night Live" dressed as the world’s most glamorous peacock. That woman can really do no wrong.