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May 08, 2024 | Tom Ballard

Knoxville start-up Holocene celebrates its pilot device for direct air capture

“We still have lots of uncertainty, but not how much it was a year ago,” says Co-Founder and President Keeton Ross,

“Before we built our pilot, Holocene was just a pitch deck,” Anca Timofte, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Knoxville-based start-up, told a crowd that turned out Wednesday afternoon for the ribbon cutting on its inaugural device to capture carbon dioxide directly from the air.

As speaker after speaker noted at the event, there’s been a significant amount of growth at Holocene in the nearly two years since Timofte and Tobias Rüesch, another Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer, arrived in the region as members of the 2022 cohort of the “Innovation Crossroads” program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

“We have to remove 10s of billions of tons of CO2, and we can’t do this without you,” she told those who packed two different suites that Holocene occupies in a strip development on Papermill Mill Drive.

Pilot Facility
Pilot Facility

A year ago, the start-up had three employees. Today, that number is approaching 15. Other highlights in the past 12 months include:

  • Licensing an innovative and sustainable chemistry developed at ORNL for capturing carbon dioxide from air;
  • Being awarded a $1.92 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to advance a low-temperature, liquid approach to direct air capture;
  • Securing a purchase agreement via Frontier Climate, an advance market commitment to buy at least $1 billion of permanent carbon removal between 2022 and 2030;
  • Being selected as one of seven semifinalists by DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM) for the development phase of the Direct Air Capture Pre-Commercial Prize to receive a total of $1.05 million in cash awards and technical assistance for technology solutions that reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution by removing it directly from the atmosphere; and
  • Winning a Federal Laboratory Consortium “Excellence in Technology Transfer Award” along with ORNL for the technology it just licensed.

On Wednesday afternoon, Holocene unveiled its latest accomplishment – a device that can extract 10 tons of carbon a year from the air.

“From 10 grams in a beaker to 10 tons per year,” says Co-Founder and President Keeton Ross about the latest device that was built totally in-house with the exception of the equipment cabinet. He joined the company in March 2023.

How significant is this development?

“It’s a really big deal,” says Timofte, adding, “It will unlock the next stage of our growth.”

Anca Timofte
Anca Timofte

The pilot device moves Holocene to a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of around 5 or 6.

By 2026 or 2027, the start-up expects to have what Timofte calls its “demonstrator” that could remove anywhere from 2,100 tons of carbon dioxide a year to as much as 5,000 tons. The ultimate goal is a device that can remove millions of tons by 2030 or 2031.

That will require 100s of millions of dollars.

When we asked Timofte about how close reality was to her expectations when she co-founded the company and moved to Knoxville, she responded that they were about on track.

“I’m ambitious and tough on myself,” she admitted, but credited the team that Holocene has recruited – all but one from outside Tennessee – with going “above and beyond” to achieve the success that was evident on Wednesday.

Ross added, “We still have lots of uncertainty, but not how much it was a year ago.”

They acknowledged that the keys to entrepreneurial success are belief, execution, and confidence.

Those speaking at the event and celebrating the milestone included:

  • Randy Boyd, President of the University of Tennessee (UT) System;
  • Susan Hubbard, ORNL’s Deputy Laboratory Director for Science and Technology;
  • John Bruck, Co-Founder and General Partner at Market Square Ventures and also former Director of the Spark Innovation Center at the UT Research Park where Holocene had a lab;
  • Brenda Haendler, Director of Technology Management for the Breakthrough Energy Fellows program of which Timofte is a member of Cohort 2;
  • Chuck Layne, Technology Advancement Manager for Launch Tennessee;
  • Marcos Gonzales Harsha, Principal Deputy Director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions;
  • Amy Henry, Director of Transformative Innovation at the Tennessee Valley Authority;
  • Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon.

Bruck may have had the best line of the speakers, quipping that Holocene “did not pick a simple problem to solve.”

Earlier, Haendler met at lunch with participants in several area programs including “Innovation Crossroads,” “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator,” “Spark Cleantech Accelerator,” and selected other start-ups.

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