About This Episode:
Jo Norris is a climate scientist, materials engineer, and artist, combining all three in the climate tech startup space.
She’s the co-founder and CEO of Carbon Reform, a start-up that’s built a device that removes carbon from the air and safely stores it into sustainable building materials, while improving indoor air quality and reducing HVAC costs by up to 40%.
It’s one of those wild, too-good-to-be-true ideas that I’m just so excited about, and I’m not the only one: Carbon Reform has raised over $3.5 million to date, and the future looks bright for us all.
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2:25 – “We’ve produced now the carbon capsule, which is a unit that retrofits into an HVAC system and it captures CO2, carbon dioxide, from the built environment. And our version of this technology actually captures CO2 from indoor air. So it’s the air that we’re breathing and especially, the air that most people are sitting in 90% of their time. And we capture the CO2, we turn it into a limestone product that can be used for green construction or other purposes. But in addition to capturing CO2, we also capture volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulate matter of several different sizes…and then we also have UVC disinfection for viruses and bacteria so we can kill Covid indoors as well.”
5:49 – “Essentially, if you take out the CO2, which typically is done through ventilation, you keep the indoor air healthy. So if you’re replacing just pure ventilation with actually cleaning the air and taking out the CO2 directly, that’s how the energy savings piece is unlocked. Because if you’re just taking the – I mean, even all of the other things, right – VOCs, particulates, viruses and bacteria, you’re still left with that CO2. And no one has created a technology that is able to be integrated into the building and at a very low energy point, take out and permanently store the CO2 as captured carbon. And so that’s what we’re doing and that’s where the mineralization aspect happens with storing the CO2 as well.”
8:05 – “The input material is a hydroxide, which is what reacts with CO2 and forms carbonate. So the calcium carbonate, we’re currently using calcium, we can use other types of carbonates as well, but the calcium carbonate is essentially limestone, and limestone is something that’s typically mined. So by producing it in the way that we produce it, we can actually replace a certain amount of mined material. Limestone, on its own can be used in concrete production as an aggregate material. So the larger chunks of stuff that are typically bound together with cement. And the reason why we would want it to go into that process as opposed to another process is because it would stay as limestone rather than having the CO2 rereleased if it was made back into a hydroxide, for example, or if it was processed in a different way.”
9:39 – “We have received some interest on the residential side and we’ve actually developed a smaller product called the Carbon Canister that works really well in like fitness centers and gyms, classrooms and potentially in homes as well. But we would need to kind of build the maintenance network around that. So we’re going to market with the more commercial side because it’s just kind of easier to tap into the potential networks around logistics and maintenance, you know, transportation of the materials in and out. But the concept can work in residential systems. But the HVAC systems in residences are, especially single-family residences, are somewhat different. So potentially we would go full commercial and then multifamily, and then we would look at single family later on.”
11:15 – [Explaining sick building syndrome] “So typically it’s just nondescript, everyone in the building is getting sick, and we’re not really sure why. Sometimes it’s something as serious as asbestos or mold, which, they found in my old high school, and then they tore it down and built a new one. Or lead paint. There’s all kinds of different things it could be, right? But what we’re also seeing is that sick building syndrome often is linked to indoor air quality. And because most buildings have these minimum requirement regulations that they follow for particulate matter, like we were talking about, usually it’s something else. And so it could be VOCs. If you have a lot of new furniture, new carpets, that have chemicals coming off of them and you’re not testing for that, that could be something. But a lot of the time, and what we’re seeing in new research, is that it is CO2 and CO2 is causing people to get really tired very easily. It’s causing people to have these cognitive deficiencies a lot of the time. So, and there have been these blind studies done now and new research coming out all the time, that carbon dioxide, even in the increase of a couple hundred parts per million, is really affecting the way that people live and work and learn. So that’s why schools are definitely of interest to us, but also office environments, it’s hurting the bottom line for companies, it’s a productivity consideration. So that’s kind of where sick building syndrome comes in and it’s hard to measure, but it is certainly something that we’re trying to make people more aware of because that’s the direct health impact of carbon dioxide that we’re talking about.”
16:46 – “You ask about, how do you build the product and everything? You don’t just go ahead and do it, right? You have these little stepping points up until then where you build a little duct taped, literally, prototype and you see how that goes and then you build the next thing that’s a little bit better. And then you partner with people who are smarter than you and have better equipment. And maybe you can get some money along the way, which is always nice when you can have investors that believe in you early on, which we do. So I think especially for a hardware, the ‘build it in your garage’ thing only works so far. But certainly, the advice to have mentors and to have people that are involved in your day-to-day decisions that you can look to, you can’t replace that with anything.”
24:50 – “Typically facilities managers are interested in the fact that the maintenance is included in the price and the fact that we will handle that and they don’t have to do anything extra. And then, also the building owners or whoever’s paying the bills, are interested in the energy savings, interested in lowering the amount of budget that they’ll have to have for energy usage or operating costs. People involved in education are very interested in student performance, student test scores, just overall health, and also the fact that it’s a retrofit so you don’t have to have the capital budget to rip out your whole HVAC system or install a new one if you never had one in the first place.”
26:27 – “I sometimes doubt whether it’s going to be enough. But I think the key to that is just that I’m taking care of my little corner of the world and that’s all I can do. And it kind of keeps me from at least getting nihilistic about things, which I think is pretty easy to do, especially as a climate scientist, and just as a person in the world right now. So it definitely helps to feel like I am, every single day, doing something to help somebody.”
31:53 – “I think being in the climate field for me has been really eye-opening as to just how many people are working on things. And that’s really refreshing to know because I feel like as a kid, when I started to learn about this, I was like, ‘Who is doing anything?’ Because I didn’t know about it. I didn’t hear about it all the time. And now I am very tapped into my world, right? And the climate world. And there are thousands and thousands of people that are waking up every day and doing something about it. So I think that that’s a little nugget of hope for everybody.”
34:11 – “Find the thing that you can wake up and work on every day. And you don’t have to solve every problem. And you don’t even have to solve one problem. You can just work towards it. And that can be enough. And if we all just kind of do that and find our one thing, then I think the world will be a lot better.”