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"Innovation Crossroads" one of several exciting opportunities for Holocene Climate Corporation
February 09, 2023 | Tom Ballard

“Innovation Crossroads” one of several exciting opportunities for Holocene Climate Corporation

The cleantech start-up is using novel organic chemistry developed and tested at ORNL to efficiently remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a series spotlighting the members of Cohort 6 of the “Innovation Crossroads” program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.)

“I’ve been thinking about this company for a longtime,” says Anca Timofte, Co-Founder of Holocene Climate Corporation.

Today, the native of Romania and  her Co-Founder Tobias Rüesch, who grew-up in Switzerland, are pursuing their shared dream of commercializing technology that removes gigatons of carbon dioxide from the air as participants in Cohort 6 of the “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

To help accelerate the work, Timofte was recently selected for Cohort 2 of the prestigious “Breakthrough Energy Fellows” global initiative from the organization launched by Bill Gates, and Holocene was also selected as one of eight members of the second cohort of the “Spark Incubator Program,” a strategic initiative within the Spark Innovation Center at the University of Tennessee (UT) Research Park at Cherokee Farm.

Timofte said being selected as a “‘Breakthrough Energy Fellow’ provides capital and other resources to make one big R&D step forward,” while the “Spark Incubator Program” makes available much needed laboratory space, along with a local network. That’s on top of the funding and guidance that comes through the two-year IC program.

The two Co-Founders met when both worked in Switzerland for Climeworks, a company that empowers people and enterprises to fight global warming by offering carbon dioxide removal as a service via direct air capture (DAC) technology. Rüesch, a mechanical engineer by training, was a Co-Department Head of R&D, and Timofte led the Climeworks’ process engineering team.

“We have complementary skills,” she told us.

Today, they are focused on making use of a novel organic chemistry developed and tested at ORNL that efficiently removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The goal is to be able to commercialize the process by drawing inspiration from the design of chemical plants and building machines that ultimately remove CO2 emissions at scale.

“There is still a lot of work to do,” Timofte says. “The way existing systems mostly work is to load CO2, which is about .04 percent (concentration) thus requiring processing a lot of air, and then unload concentrated CO2 at close to 100 percent. The unloading is where we need more research and development.”

The two Co-Founders clearly feel a sense of urgency with Timofte noting the challenges of climate change and the adverse environmental impact of CO2 emissions. There are also benefits to expediting the development, not the least of which is to capitalize on the growing commitment to from companies and governments to net-zero goals. Holocene plans to sell negative emissions to corporations and governments, thus contributing towards achieving decarbonization targets.

“This is a new chemistry,” she says of the ORNL technology. “We need to do it (Holocene’s work) very quickly, productize the technology, and get to full industrial scale. Our approach is to derisk the technology by building and testing as quickly as possible.”

She adds that the company has a demonstrator or partial system.

You might wonder how Timofte became so involved in this cause. She said that her parents both studied engineering, and her father was an entrepreneur. Also, Romania was once a major European producer of oil and gas.

“I saw the good and bad of the industry,” she added.

Just a few weeks ago, Holocene was announced (see article here) as one of two local recipients receiving funding under the Department of Energy’s “Carbon Management” program to develop technologies to capture CO2 from utility and industrial sources or directly from the atmosphere and transport it either for permanent geologic storage or for conversion into valuable products such as fuels and chemicals. Total federal funding for the project is $1.5 million with $420,000 of match.

Timofte graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a B.S. in Chemical and Environmental Engineering and earned an M.S. in Environmental Engineering from ETH Zürich and, most recently, an MBA from Stanford University. Rüesch also earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in Mechanical Engineering at ETH Zürich. He worked at Hitachi Zosen Inova in Zurich for three and one-half years before joining with Timofte to launch Holocene.

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