Scaling is the biggest challenge: Carbon Clean Solutions’s Aniruddha Sharma
Mumbai: Aniruddha Sharma’s interest in environmental pollution and his desire to do something about it can perhaps be traced to the place of his birth—Bhopal. The infamous gas leak of 1984 occurred just days after his parents married and Sharma says he has seen the effect of the calamity on his family. In an interview, the chief executive of Carbon Clean Solutions Ltd, which specializes in technology to capture carbon, speaks about his company, the challenges and future plans, and dealing with scepticism. Edited excerpts:
Your company straddles a number of different fields like technology, innovation, environment…
We are a hardcore technology company. We help large-scale polluters capture CO2 from their black smoke stack and convert it to something they can sell. It has to be about a profitable, sustainable, commercial package which I can offer and you can recoup later. This is the reason why environment technology fails because everyone sees this as a dream, nobody sees it as a dollar green.
We license and sell the technology. We do not invest and we don’t build it. A lot of people have learned the hard way—environment technology does not fly on its own. In our case, the other added advantage is, since the CO2 is captured from a pollution source and used back in the process, the product can be labelled green product.
In the world of technology, it’s pertinent to remain ahead of the competition?
For example, someone trying to steal the technology—it’s always a threat and gives me sleepless nights some times. We have 5-6 patents in 10 countries, wherever we have a market. About six are granted in the US. But we believe, to maintain an edge, protection is good, but you can’t do it all the time. The only way to be ahead of the competition is by innovating more. Currently, we are working on tech to capture CO2 at $10 (from $30 a ton), but at the same time, we are working on the next wave which would further reduce cost by 50%. We have the next prototype and will commercialize it in 2-3 years. We also help people convert their organic waste into pure methane.
It will be another 50 years at least before processes change so much that everything is on renewable energy completely. Our objective is: 10 projects like the one in Tuticorin will help sequester about 60,000 tons of CO2. If by the end of the year, I can decarbonize 10 plants or 600,000 tons of CO2, it will be equal to taking three lakh cars off road in pollution.
What makes your company unique or different from others working in the field?
The industrial scale is a big boy game. There are a few start-ups and they are well funded by American VCs. But we compete with the top two companies. There are only two, excluding us, that have potentially proven the technology on a meaningful scale—Shell Cansolv and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. We are the only one to have delivered at a site which has no subsidies and is bank-financed in India.
It’s important to have government support—Swacch Bharat talks of cleaning land and water. Who is cleaning the air? Air has everything that can kill you. The more you are able to demonstrate the more confidence you get from the industry.
In 15 years, India will need three times the energy it is burning today. The country is thinking of getting 25% of its GDP from its share of industry.
It’s important this area is looked at carefully, or you will end up as China where all the pollution goes up in the air. It’s probably the case in some cities in India already.
What are your biggest challenges?
We are trying to scale the technology from the lab to somebody’s backyard. That’s the biggest challenge. Then you talking numbers—10,000kg of your chemicals running around in the process, equipment that is 20m high… The second is to gain credibility. We are two founders who are about 30 (years old) and a bunch of engineers. Every customer I have met is older than us. Third, is raising equity for this company. We are not a dotcom. We have to go out and sell.
What has worked for you?
In dealing with scepticism, the most important learning for us is if you are launching something revolutionary, you need solid data (to back it).
Two, you need to be open to scrutiny and honest about whatever you are selling. Over promising, under delivering never helps, the opposite does. The industrial technology world grows on word of mouth.
Third is, I was lucky—we stumbled upon the right thing at the right time. Getting a grant of Rs40 crore from the British government, getting our first customer from the same institute (IIT Kharagpur) … lucky that there was a solution and I could grab it.
Tuticorin was our 24th customer but first in industrial de-carbonization.
We offer one for sustainable waste management where we help industrial polluters in poultry, cattle, etc. so all their agricultural waste can be converted.
India is still developing as a market which is astonishing because we are an agrarian economy. With so much of waste, we can generate 10-15% of our yearly natural gas demand from internal waste. If agricultural waste can be given to us, we can convert that into methane and give it back to them for cooking, running cars, etc. in CNG.
Cattle waste is a big problem, solid waste from cities, sugar in distilleries, sewage treatment… all can be converted into producing CNG or manure by simple proven technologies. We are in the process of setting up the first plant in India, in Maharashtra—it will go into construction in March. We are hopeful in about 7-8 months we should have the plant running. It will convert the biogas out of sugar industrial waste into pure CNG, which will then be used as fuel for cars.
What kind of work do you foresee in the future?
We are working with a company in Saudi Arabia to fit technology at the back of a petrol-run car—you can sell that (captured) CO2 wherever you buy the petrol or there is a second option where the CO2 is stored in your trunk which you can later sell. Transport adds 20-25% to your carbon emissions. There is no way to decarbonize transport except using electric vehicles.
We have over 80 requests from all over the world, mostly from Europe, UK, South Africa, China, Australia and Japan.
What we have realized, as per a case study, is if CO2 is captured cheaply—at $30—it could be fed into 25 existing product lines which are then a $1 trillion market. We are talking about reducing carbon emissions to the tune of three trillion tons, which is 80% of the world’s emissions.
Start-ups are the embryos of tomorrow’s business ecosystem. They give us hope for the future while laying the foundation for growth. In the 1990s, India had the likes of Bharti Airtel, Axis Bank and, of course, Infosys for inspiration. In an earlier era, there was Reliance and Nirma, which set the gold standard for entrepreneurship. Now, as we stand bang in the centre of a new digital revolution, Mint seeks to find the potential superstars of the future. Our objective was simple: to identify the constituents of a Mint40 stock index in 2030. The choice of companies will be obvious in some cases, debatable in others, but there can be no arguing that these firms represent the zeitgeist of this new age of Indian business. Over the next few months, Mint will profile these 40 companies, across industries and segments.
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