Climate tech solutions can sometimes seem vexingly distant on the horizon, but as climate impacts bear down hard, the urgency of the problem is palpable. That's why it’s invigorating to see a solution such as Remora, which reduces emissions from long-haul trucking by sucking up carbon dioxide directly from the tailpipe. The company has been incorporated for less than a year, but it’s poised to install its first devices on commercial trucks at the start of 2022.
"That’s what’s exciting about this technology," said Paul Gross, Remora’s co-founder and chief executive officer. "It’s ready to go now, not a decade from now or a couple decades away."
An impressive group of investors and customers has already bought into Remora’s vision. In August, Remora announced it had raised a $5.5 million seed round led by venture capital heavyweight Union Square Ventures, along with other major climate tech players such as Lowercarbon Capital, Y Combinator, First Round Capital, Neo Ventures and MCJ Collective.
On the customer side, Remora has a long list of multibillion-dollar logistics corporations (16 and counting) that have signed up to pilot the technology on part of their fleets — including trucking companies Ryder, Werner, Arcbest and NFI Industries, as well as agribusiness giant Cargill.
"Their core business model is entirely credible," said carbon removal expert Julio Friedmann, a senior research scholar at Columbia University. "If you’re going to do mobile source capture, you do it on trucks and you do it on fleets."
Remora’s trajectory started with a simple idea that Gross just couldn’t shake while he was a student at Yale University: capture carbon at the source.
"It seemed crazy to me that we have all of these very rich sources of carbon dioxide coming out of vehicles and buildings, and we’re going to instead wait for that carbon dioxide to scatter into the atmosphere and then try to collect it again," he said.
Gross’s dream of capturing emissions at the tailpipe was far from a pipe dream. He came across a doctoral dissertation from Christina Reynolds at the University of Michigan, who had done extensive research on the possibility of mobile source carbon capture. Paul convinced her to join him as chief science officer, so that she could take her research from theory to practice.
The world can’t really wait around for the perfect material to show up, and we can’t wait around for the perfect conditions for carbon capture on the vehicle.
"It was inspiring," Reynolds told me. "It was a chance to do something real and have a very tangible impact."
They rounded out the founding team with Eric Harding, an engineer who had experience building and maintaining next-generation trucking technologies.
Now the team has grown to 15 people. One thing that stands out about this group is their young age. Gross is just 24, and most of the team is under 30.
"I think it matters a lot that the founding team and the entire team are really young," Gross said, "Because we’re the generation that finally has to do something about climate change."
Exhausting the technical possibilities
When it comes to doing something about climate change, trucks are a good place to start. In the United States, more than 70 percent of goods spend time inside a truck, and the trucking industry is responsible for almost 7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Long-distance trucking is notoriously hard to decarbonize because it’s poorly suited to electrification. The necessary batteries would add substantial weight, and charging them would take substantial time, but weight and time both come at a steep premium in the trucking business.
Commercial trucks consist of two separate components. The goods themselves are in the trailer on the back, while the emissions come from the tractor on the front, where the engine is. Normally, these tractors belch out a hot, wet cloud of CO2, nitrogen, oxygen and other gases. That’s where Remora comes in.
Reynolds’ doctoral research explored how to isolate carbon dioxide from that waste stream. First, the exhaust needs to be made cooler and dryer, and then it gets passed over a material that selectively absorbs CO2. There are several options for this material, each with its own pros and cons.
"The world can’t really wait around for the perfect material to show up, and we can’t wait around for the perfect conditions for carbon capture on the vehicle," Reynolds said. "So we do our best with what’s available."
The Remora team went with a type of zeolite, a porous mineral-like substance. They picked this material because it was already commonly used to remove excess CO2 emissions caused by human activity, albeit in a much more limited context: for spaceships and submarines. CO2 needs to be constantly removed from those vessels so that the crews can continue to breathe.
"People don’t really think about how common it is, in a closed space, to have that technology," Reynolds said. "We’re just taking it to a much more aggressive level."
After the CO2 is captured, it can be released by applying heat, much of which comes from the exhaust itself. Remember that the exhaust came out hot and needed to be cooled. Remora recycles much of this heat for the release of CO2. In this sense, Remora is making productive use of an otherwise wasted resource.
Building a new CO2 supply chain
Another wasted resource that Remora puts to good use is the CO2 itself. Remora’s devices wind up with pure CO2 that can be sold directly into both existing and nascent markets. The weight of the CO2 reduces the fuel efficiency of the truck, but the proceeds from selling the CO2 make up for this cost, so the process is neutral or even beneficial to the customers’ bottom line.
Then there’s the matter of logistics. Given that no CO2 collection network exists, Remora is building one from scratch. Commercial trucks travel along predictable, heavily trafficked routes, so Remora can offtake the CO2 at a limited set of facilities along major highways. The infrastructure for this part is relatively simple: a tank that can be bought off the shelf and a means of transporting CO2 to end users, such as greenhouses and beverage carbonators.
"The advantage for us is that we’re doing a distributed approach, so we’re going to have carbon dioxide much closer to our end users," Gross said.
The startup also hopes to sequester or use as much CO2 as possible. Some CO2 can be pumped into the ground, which is incentivized in the U.S. with a juicy tax credit that might get further bulked up under pending legislation. Some CO2 can also be turned into useful products such as concrete, plastic and fuel. A slew of companies is working on the latter, such as Twelve (formerly Opus12), which recently raised Series A funding of $57 million (a founder of Twelve is also an investor in Remora). Of all the uses for CO2, the Remora team is particularly enthusiastic about fuel, because it could create a conveniently circular process.
"If we can offload [carbon dioxide] at a truck stop, turn it into fuel, and then sell it back to the truck, for us, that’s the ideal," Gross said.
For now, there are more than enough interested buyers for small amounts of captured CO2, but as the company scales, supply may eventually outstrip demand, particularly if the markets for sequestration and use don’t keep up.
"It is an open question, at what point do they saturate those markets?" said Friedmann, the carbon removal expert at Columbia. "At what point does taking CO2 become more difficult or an obligation? We don’t really know the answers to that."
There’s also the issue of the carbon that doesn’t get captured. Remora claims that its technology will capture 80 percent of the carbon that comes out of the tailpipe, and that’s an optimistic estimate. The other 20 percent will still be emitted into the atmosphere.
"One can make the case that right now we’re doing nothing, so that’s better than doing nothing," Friedmann said, "but this is an open question as far as how the market will value that kind of partial capture."
What’s in it for the big dogs
For now, early adopters are very enthusiastic about what Remora has to offer, especially companies that are thinking deeply about the future of the trucking industry.
"If we wake up one day and the world has changed on us, we need to be prepared for understanding exactly what those next-generation technologies are and how we can embrace those and deploy those on behalf of our customers," said Karen Jones, executive vice president, chief marketing officer and head of new product development at Ryder, a logistics company with a fleet of 235,000 trucks.
Ryder is working towards several near-term sustainability goals, such as reducing fleet emissions by 10 percent between 2018 and 2024. The company also faces pressure from its enterprise customers who are trying to meet their own emissions targets. Ryder’s customer base runs the gamut from major Fortune 500 corporations to small "mom-and-pop" operations. Over the last few years, Jones has observed a "groundswell of interest" from consumer-facing businesses in finding innovative solutions to reduce their supply chain emissions.
"At the end of the day, if they win, we win," she said.
If we wake up one day and the world has changed on us, we need to be prepared for understanding exactly what those next-generation technologies are and how we can embrace those and deploy those on behalf of our customers.
Part of what inspired Gross to start Remora was his observation that corporations had few options available to meet their short-term commitments. Another plus is that the devices will have an obvious physical presence on roadways, making them a tangible embodiment of climate solutions in action.
"One of the things that excited me about doing carbon capture with a device on a vehicle is that it’s super visible and continues to be visible year after year," he said.
Ryder sees its engagement with Remora and other startups as more than just a publicity play. The company regularly invests in young companies, and it sees itself as a partner in innovation, filling gaps that startups would not be able to fill on their own.
"We have customers, startups don’t," Jones said. "Startups are really good at technology, but they don’t have … anyone to test it out on. We have the ability — because of our operations and our size and our scale through our dedicated business — to really test out and perfect these models."
From the factory to the finish line
Once Remora’s devices start hitting the road, decarbonization can progress quickly, because trucks are large emitters, and the devices are small enough to be mass manufactured.
"A million tons of carbon dioxide is only 7,500 trucks," Gross estimated, "so that’s pretty doable in the next couple years."
As an outside observer with no direct ties to Remora, Julio Friedmann emphasized that speed is one of the company’s greatest strengths, in terms of both market penetration and climate impact.
"One of the advantages that Remora has is that they can move fast," he said. "They absolutely could retrofit a bunch of trucks today. Boom. Done. You don’t need to change the fueling infrastructure, you don’t need to change the way the driver drives, you don’t need to change the engine."
While mobile carbon capture can start up right away, there are still unmet infrastructure needs, particularly when it comes to sequestering and using carbon. In that sense, mobile carbon capture has some parallels to green hydrogen. Both are powerful decarbonization strategies that rely on nascent or non-existent infrastructure to reach scale. However, according to Friedmann, the infrastructure challenges aren’t as big as they might seem, and the tipping points could happen quickly, particularly with nudges from policy, such as the current infrastructure legislation being considered in Congress.
In describing the mad dash to widescale commercialization for these technologies, he eschews the old-fashioned image of a horse race and instead draws on imagery from the video game Mario Kart, better suited to the digital age.
"Mario Kart is also a better metaphor because there are lots of hazards and complexities along the way, and people throw bombs at each other," he said. "That is more like what is actually happening in the market."
Regardless which companies or technologies cross the finish line and which stumble on metaphorical bombs and banana peels, the core objective is to reach carbon neutrality as quickly as possible, using all the tools in the toolbox.
"We must reduce and remove emissions — we can’t just avoid emissions — and so in doing that, Remora is walking the walk of the energy transition," Friedmann said. "We’ll see whether or not they can get to the promised land."”