#6 Capturing Carbon from Semi Trucks


Welcome to the Design to Product Podcast!

In this interview episode, we talked to Eric Harding.

Eric Harding is the Co-Founder of Remora, a company that builds a device that captures carbon emissions from semi trucks. We listened to their incredible story that started from academic research, the engineering challenges and considerations and the take on carbon emission reduction and EVs.

Today we talked about:

  • How Remora was build
  • Challenges and environmental impact caused by semi trucks
  • How Remora works and how it help reduce carbon emissions
  • Engineering and development challenges when building a device that captures carbon from semi trucks
  • How to build a business model
  • How to build a relationship between startup and big companies

Products mentioned: Colab


Adar: Our guest today is Eric Harding. Eric is the co-founder of Remora, a startup that built a device that captures carbon emissions on semi trucks. And after capturing the carbon emissions from semi trucks before they are released to the atmospheres, they have companies actually use them. So hello, Eric.

Eric: Hello, Adar.

Adar: How are you today?

Eric: I’m great. Thanks for having me on.

Adar: Sure. So maybe we can start a little bit from the story of Remora. How did it all begin?

Eric: Absolutely. So we have three co-founders. Paul was graduating college and thinking about the CO2 cliff we’re about to go off and was thinking, why aren’t we capturing CO2 from vehicles? And so he was looking for information on this, and he found our other Cofounder, Christina’s PhD. And he read the entire PhD dissertation, calls her up, goes over the plan, comes up with a really in depth business model, and slowly convinces her to start a company with all this PhD work that she had done. She, at this point, finished her PhD, had two years of the EPA designing heavy duty and medium electric vehicle testing. So she was very familiar with the electrification and how bad it was going and how it wasn’t really going to solve the issues for heavy duty and medium duty trucks.

Adar: What do you think..

Eric: Yeah, it’s pretty great. And then they decided they wanted to, they needed somebody who had more hands on experience with building these kinds of technologies. So they went out and found me because I have experience with building classic trucks like hydrogen electric or electric first generation vehicles.

Adar: Wow, that’s amazing. So actually, he was probably pretty persuasive and chased after her until she agreed to start a company.

Eric: Yes, I think it took a month and I think the first call started with Christina saying there is no way we’ll start a company. So, yeah, he’s pretty persuasive. He’s good at people, he’s good at understanding numbers and he’s good at making a story. So those things come together very well when you start a company.

Adar: Yeah, definitely. Storytelling is one of the most important ones. And maybe let me understand the impact here. What is the damage caused by carbon emissions? I mean, most people probably know that the world is heading to a sustainable world, but I guess what’s the damage that’s caused by a semi truck, specifically?

Eric: Yeah, it’s huge. I think at this point, 70% of all goods in the United States travel on a truck. So during the pandemic, when everyone was staying home and working from home, everyone thought emissions would go down, but they actually went up because we just shipped things to our house on bigger vehicles. We used more heat in our homes and a bunch of other reasons. But it just shows you that the problem isn’t as simple as electrifying personal cars and getting some huge benefit. So, understanding that, the US CO2 emissions, I think it’s a couple of percentage points, like 3 or 4% is heavy duty trucks. And even though electric trucks have existed, like I built one that was drivable five years ago, there still hasn’t been practically any of them on the market or sold. They’ve all been pre sold and no one has been able to deliver them. So clearly there are massive challenges in getting them on the road.

Adar: Yeah, because you would imagine that electric trucks would solve that problem, right? That’s what you would think.

Eric: Yeah, you would think that, but it turns out they’re really not

Adar: It’s not that easy.

Eric: They’re not that great, they don’t fit the need, and they have massive, massive environmental impact when you manufacture them.

Adar: Why is that? What’s the challenge?

Eric: Yeah, so initially, everyone was talking about how electrification is going to be such a big benefit, but they were oversimplifying the manufacturing costs for electrification. And so, now we know that lithium mining and processing is killing fish and yaks in China. We know that if we convert all electric vehicles on all vehicles on the planet to electric, we have to increase our copper mining by 100x what we do now. So, we know now that even though CO2 won’t be as dramatic, we would cause, probably the next mass extinction from over mining, land use and processing all these raw materials that we need for this transition. And then just electric vehicles just don’t fit the need. I mean, trucks need to go 1000 miles before they get back to their base. And so if you stop to charge, you’re paying a driver for a long time. These batteries are 10,000 to £15,000. They’re not small and there is no such thing as supercharging them, so it just doesn’t fit the model. And then they weigh so much more. They weigh 10 to 15,000 pounds more, which is like almost twice as much as a diesel class eight truck. And so you have to produce your payload. And if you reduce your payload, then you have to drive the trip twice for every, you know, you have 10,000 lb or so left behind. And so then that adds up. You’re paying a whole other driver, you know, another truck to meet the same needs. So we’re just seeing all of our customers have ruled out electrification. They just realized it’s just not possible. So, they’re looking for something else.

Adar: Right. When you meet reality, some things are not as you thought them to be. Probably the current way of doing things is here to stay. So, what you’re doing is helping to reduce the carbon emissions so let’s maybe, talk about what you do. What’s this device like, how does it work?

Eric: Yeah, so what’s really exciting about us is we’re integrating into our current infrastructure so we can take a vehicle that’s on the road, we can add our device to it. You don’t even have to buy a new vehicle. And when the exhaust is coming out of the tailpipe, instead of going into the atmosphere, it goes into our device. We filter out H2O and then we filter out the CO2 into our chambers, and then we let the nitrogen and oxygen go to the atmosphere. And so we can store just the CO2 on board. And you can just drive as much as you want for as many miles as you want. If we fill up our device, we can store about one 500 lbs. of CO2 right now. If you fill that up, you can just keep driving until you get back to your base to offload, so it doesn’t affect your daily commute. And we can offload in, like, under 20 minutes. So about the same amount of time as fueling, so they can offload while they fuels, so it doesn’t adda whole lot of time for the driver’s.

Adar: 20 seconds or minutes.

Eric: 20 minutes, yeah.

Adar: 20 minutes. All right, got it. All right. Interesting. So you mentioned, like, 6200 trees every year. That’s amazing.

Eric: Yeah so, we try to be very conservative with our estimates. So, that’s actually an underestimate. That’s like using one truck for five days a week for one route. A lot of customers, you know, these trucks are pretty expensive and they have a lot of value. So a lot of customers use them for two routes a day and use them seven days a week. So we can double that impact.

Adar: Yeah. Just to clarify, the impact of planting 6200 trees every year, like, the same environmental impact. Is that right?

Eric: Yeah. So basically 6700 trees, if they were to grow infinitely and never stop growing, which isn’t exactly true, but if they grow infinitely every year, they need to draw in a certain amount of carbon to grow. We prevent that same amount of carbon from getting in the atmosphere. And so every single year, we’re bringing down the same amount as that many trees with this device.

Adar: Interesting. So we’re here to talk a little bit about the challenges as well of building such a device. And probably you have a bunch, so probably like building such a light device that sits on trucks, that absorbs the material, probably has some own unique engineering and development challenges. Can you elaborate a little bit about them?

Eric: Yeah, this is a very new space, so direct air capture for CO2 has existed for roughly 50 years. So that portion is pretty well understood, but once you put it on a vehicle, you need to be mobile. Basically, none of the things that are working for direct air capture work for us. So, our challenge is really we have to reinvent every single process and every single component for that process. So just to give you a sense of just how much work we have to do, for every molecule or gram or kilogram of CO2 that we capture, we can do it for almost one fourth the energy input that direct air capture gets. So we’re almost four times more efficient than they are. So that’s just how much we’ve had to invent and figure out. And we’ve had to figure out how to do it on a vehicle, which every single component is somehow customized pretty much by us, because nothing comes ready to go on a vehicle.

Adar: And from what you can tell, where were your breakthroughs? What did you do differently? How did you treat that differently than others? Just from what you can tell us?

Eric: Yeah, so I think, one thing that’s been really fun to do is figure out how to use waste energy on the vehicle. So the exhaust has a lot of waste heat, and so we actually figured out how to tap into that heat and make it extremely useful for us. So we don’t put a lot of energy into creating tons and tons of heat. Our cycles need to change temperature in order to release CO2. They go to a higher temperature, and we basically get all of that energy for free from the exhaust. And we need to cool the exhaust before it goes into the chamber, because for adsorbing, the CO2 exhaust needs to be cool. So we cool the exhaust, we get that heat out, which we needed out, and we get to use that heat for free. So it ends up working extremely well.

Adar: And this is based on the research of your co-founder that discovered this chemical impact, is that right?

Eric: That’s right. So, yeah, Christina’s PhD looked into how to very practically focus on carbon capture for vehicles and not use the same processes and temperature demands and energy demands that they use for direct capture, especially not the same stuff they use in labs where they don’t have to keep track of their energy because they don’t have to pay the bills for it. Yeah. So if you read her dissertation and didn’t have her on your team, you’d be probably four years behind where we are right now because we’ve been able to sit down and iterate through issues that you just couldn’t have predicted prior so quickly by having her expertise. It’s absolutely amazing having her, Christina, on the team to get where we are.

Adar: Yeah. That’s so important. And I think that you have the three things that you need, like you as an engineer. Paul as the storyteller, I suppose, or the one who leads the business side, and Christina who leads the scientific side. So that’s a great combination. How do you build a business model around what you’re doing? Like, who is the person or the company to pay for what you’re doing?

Eric: Yeah, this is all Paul’s work here, so I’ll paraphrase as best I can, but, so, a lot of companies now are making commitments to reduce their environmental footprint significantly, more than any government regulation. Like, I mean, there are lots of companies now that have quoted that they’re going to be near zero or zero with offsets in ten years or 15 years, and there’s no government out there requiring this. So that’s pretty amazing, like, I have to give credit to these companies who are really actually putting in their time and energy into doing things a lot better than they have. And so these companies, a lot of them use trucks because as I said 70% of products are on trucks. So, whether it’s directly or indirectly on a truck. So like, if Jiga needed to ship something, it’s going to go on a truck. So any customer out there who uses trucks pretty much is interested in what we’re doing. We work with companies that own the trucks and we work with companies who pay trucking companies to move their products around. So we work with both direct and indirect emissions.

Adar: And these companies are the ones to pay for that in order to reduce their carbon emissions.

Eric: That’s right. Yeah. So basically any company that’s looking to cut their missions from their trucks are looking to do it immediately and significantly. Then they’re going to want to, want to put our device on the trucks that are moving their products around. The trucking world is very interesting. A lot of times you’ll have three or four different parties all coming together to get something shipped. So it’s kind of a complicated relationship, but we can work with everyone and get this working. And I think it’s really not a hard sell for the trucking companies because one thing that’s vastly different between us and every other new technology is that we’re mostly cost neutral because the CO2 that we’re collecting on board has a lot of value and so we can sell it to end users that permanently store it. And that helps offset the cost of the device itself. And the device adds weight to the vehicle and it uses a little bit of energy, it uses about 3%.

Adar: So, let me stop you a little bit because you said something interesting here. You sell that carbon emissions to end users. How does that work? Your customers take that emissions from the device and sell it and they can make money out of it. Is that how it works?

Eric: Yeah. So we own the CO2. The instant that it’s captured the device, it’s ours. So we actually have set up an offload network. So they pull up to one of our offload tanks, hook up a hose. It’s just like fueling, but instead of fuel going on to the vehicle, CO2 is coming off of the vehicle.  And then once those tanks, the tanks can go up to about 30 tons of CO2. Once those tanks are getting pretty full, we can send a trailer out to collect all that CO2 in the tank and we can ship it to an end user. So one of the really great end users that we’re working with and have a contract with is to make concrete with CO2. Because the CO2 chemically bonds in the concrete, which makes the concrete stronger, it means they don’t need other additives in the concrete. So it actually reduces how much CO2 was produced during the manufacturing of the concrete. Plus it stores CO2. So it brings the CO2 footprint of the concrete way down. Not quite neutral yet, but it’s still significantly lower. And since it’s a chemical bond, it’s there forever. I mean, even if you, you know, unless you were to bond with, like, a nuclear weapon, it’s there for its entire existence of the concrete, which will be the end of the time. But there are other uses. Companies are now making plastics out of CO2, tires, ink, black inks are coming out of CO2. There’s just so many uses for CO2.

Adar: It’s better to use it for products than have it in the air, right?

Eric: Yeah, and it’s better to use it for these products because it’s permanent storage like, use it for dry ice or beverages. It’ll go back into the atmosphere. So you’re just pausing when it gets the atmosphere instead of preventing it and our goal is preventing. So we highly, highly focus on ways like even if geologic storage on the ground would be included as permanent storage.

Adar: Right. And let’s talk a little bit about the relationships here because working with such big companies, how do you even start? Like, how do you prototype, I guess? How do you build that process with them and convince them to put a device of a startup in a truck? Right. So how did that work?

Eric: Yeah, this wasn’t easy initially, but now things are rolling very, very well. So, initially we couldn’t afford to go straight to a Class A truck. They’re very expensive. You need a special license to drive them. Insurance is more expensive, fuel all this. So initially, we bought a Class Five vehicle, a meeting duty truck, and we put our prototype on there, and that showed what we could do. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough to get people to think about this solution. And then from there and that was about the fourth or fifth month into starting the company, we demonstrated this for our investors and some of our potential customers. And that was basically what we needed. We needed to get them to think about this as being a potential for the future. And that basically flipped that switch. And so then we were able to get everyone to sign on while we were building our first Class A truck. We went out, bought two Class A trucks, which we couldn’t put a full system on because there’s so much in development simultaneously. But we would put various subsystems on to test and take off and test and take off. So we’ve done that for about six to eight months. And then one of our customers gave us their vehicles to build our full system on. We actually have a customer’s vehicle now with our entire system installed that we’re driving and testing. And they are visiting today, actually, while I’m out of town, to come check on it. And that has been extremely helpful because, I mean, no other Class A CO2 mitigating technology is working with a customer the way we are. Like, nobody else has a customer’s vehicle that’s already being tested. So we’re really excited about this.

Adar: Yeah, that sounds definitely exciting. And you’re implementing that product in a real truck, I guess, at an engineering level. Do you see any challenges? Do you have to replace parts? I don’t know. I would like to hear a little bit more about how you operate that product and maybe even, like, what kind of people would you need on your team to complete your knowledge, because it’s probably a complex thing to do.

Eric: Yeah. So I don’t know how deep you want to go, but I think the most important thing for our team, so our team is pretty young for the most part. I think half or more of our engineers are in their first year out of college, so pretty young. The one thing that’s good about that is that they are very open minded, so they can take a lot of different avenues to solve their problem simultaneously instead of getting siloed into the way things are always done, which has helped us a lot. I think one of the biggest hurdles we’ve had is we don’t really want to figure out how to build and design a CO2 compressor. And CO2 compressors already exist you know, there’s a bunch out there for stationary carbon capture. There’s people out there selling CO2 for getting CO2 in a bunch of different ways and selling them and getting in our beverages, dry ice. There’s already a market for it. So clearly there’s compressors on the market. The issue was they were either way too big, way too small, and absolutely none of them were designed for a vehicle. So we had to convince a compressor company that had something that was almost the right size, but not quite to sell us one. Let us strip it down and rebuild it the way we needed to be built. They’re like, well, warranties. We’re like, okay, no warranties. Got it. We’ll pay up front. Got it. If it goes poorly, we will not tell anybody that your product doesn’t work, like, you know what I mean? We have to like, really like

Adar: With big things in order to start making them again. Remaking them in the way that you want.

Eric: Exactly. So we would buy a $50,000 compressor and strip $40,000 of parts off it and get to the base unit. That’s all we needed. And then find our own motors, our own wiring, our own sensors, and then we wrote our own software logic. Like, we did everything ourselves to hit this compressor that actually works on a vehicle we can drive with today. And we did that for almost every single component.

Adar: That’s awesome. Yeah, Eric, that’s really exciting. And I really wish you luck. Probably will host you in the future where you have your device on thousands of trucks. So, thank you for being with us today. It was really great.

Eric: Yes. I appreciate it, thanks so much.