“She didn’t talk to me for a while," says Sharma, laughing, as he recounts the story at the Mumbai office of Carbon Clean Solutions Ltd (CCSL), a company he co-founded in 2009 with partner Prateek Bumb.
Sharma today is the chief operating officer of one of the few companies in the world that specialize in carbon capture, an industry dominated by big companies like Shell Cansolv, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Aker Solutions (Norway). Last year, 10 of the world’s biggest oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell Plc and BP Plc, pledged to invest $10 billion over the next decade to develop technologies to capture and store greenhouse gasses, Mint reported in November. It’s an indicator of what makes carbon capture so important.
As carbon emissions have increased over the years, warming the earth, leaders, environmentalists and climate change experts have spoken about the need to reduce carbon emissions to preserve the planet’s future. Global warming—an increase in the earth’s average surface temperature—is caused by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. The main contributor to this is burning of fossil fuels by industries.
But industry and profit and a need for energy have always won over conservation, which CCSL tries to overcome by providing the means to incentivize carbon capture. The CCSL technology claims to not only help capture carbon at rates much lower than market standards, but also allows the user to sell that carbon. CCSL can capture carbon dioxide at the cost of $30 a ton—other available technology does it for $60-90 a ton. They are targeting $15 a ton and if “we get to $10, we would be close to European carbon credit scheme," says Sharma.
“They (CCSL) have their own patented technology for the whole process of capture and the solvent they use for scrubbing carbon dioxide out is unique. The best part is they have reduced the cost of capture and it’s efficiently working around the globe," says Vikram Vishal, a geologist and assistant professor at IIT-Bombay’s department of earth sciences.
“Globally, and in India, this is a unique firm that has taken a nascent technology to be applied commercially," says Amit Kumar, senior director-social transformation, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a think tank working on sustainable development in India.
The company’s first plant, in partnership with Tuticorin Alkali Chemicals and Fertilizers, came up in Tamil Nadu in October 2016 and converts carbon dioxide from its coal-fired boiler into soda ash.
This project came together over eight years after the two college mates and hostel roommates decided to push the boundaries of technology just a bit further.
When in his third year of engineering at IIT, Bumb got selected for a programme in a university in Italy where he learnt about carbon capture. This was 2008, and Europe’s approach to reducing the carbon footprint was different to India’s. On return, he used the three months’ learnings to choose this subject for his master’s thesis.
After leaving college, the two men started a consultancy. They got a few power plants interested in their idea, collated the relevant data and compiled the results. But the first-hand learning from customers was different—carbon capture was too expensive, too corrosive and came with the risk of some chemicals ending up in the atmosphere as well.
The partners started testing on computer simulations and by 2009 end, they had developed a new molecule and associated technology which could dramatically reduce cost in both new and old plants. “We didn’t hit it on one night, but consistently over two years," says Sharma, 31.
The technology used a solvent/molecule called APBS (amin-promoted buffer salt), which causes less corrosion on the plant surfaces. A litre of this solvent tackles 80 times more CO2 than others, thereby substantially reducing cost, explains Bumb, chief technology officer and co-founder of CCSL.
As an aside, Sharma mentions that the APBS abbreviation was initially for “Aniruddha Prateek Bumb Sharma" but their lawyer said it could not be patented; so they came up with the current scientific name. “We have patented 50 molecules in that category," he says.
Finding the funds
Sharma, who lives in London where the company is registered, leaves an unavoidable carbon footprint by travelling the world, selling his business. Their company employs some 20 people, including in Mumbai.
CCSL has worked with Norwegian companies like Statoil, fertilizer company Yara, energy recovery facility Klemetsrud Energy Agency (KEA), power company E.ON, German majors such as Vorwerk and Hitachi Zosen Inova (HZI Group). In India, CCSL has done some studies for Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL) and collaborated with Tata Power Ltd.
In a spacious, sparsely furnished office at Saki Naka in Mumbai, the bespectacled Sharma talks about the early days. Living in London has given him access to the rest of Europe, which suits his recreational love for history and architecture. The partners now are often in different cities, crisscrossing each other—Bumb was in London at the time of this meeting. In 2016, Bumb says, he spent 200 days out of India.
Bumb, also 31, is from Jaipur, a product of the famous engineering prep factory of Kota. He too got key placements at some French companies when he was finishing his course at IIT. But encouraged by his family—which runs a business—he decided to start his own thing.
“Jaipur’s social background is such, people do their own business, and few people do jobs," he says over the phone. “I am the only engineer (in family); we have five chartered accountants."
Now he has three homes, in Jaipur, Mumbai and London and what he calls two start-ups—CCSL and his three-month-old daughter (besides a two-year-old son).
But before this jet-setting life, for the first year-and-a-half, the partners survived on “pocket money" from parents and friends—about $500,000, which they used carefully. From IIT, they moved to Pune because the dream was to work at the National Chemical Laboratory, but after six months, they shifted to Mumbai to retrofit an existing lab.
They also hired two engineers from General Electric in Bengaluru. “They bought into the idea that this would be the only company in the world that will help decarbonize at this cost. They are still with us," Sharma says, smiling.
A part of the breakthrough came in mid-2011 when they decided not to develop their own lab but find companies around the world that had the facilities to test and verify their products. They signed up with TNO, an independent research organization in the Netherlands, which confirmed the validity of their technology to save costs. Once they got the TNO certification, a lot of people became interested.
Bumb names scientists at the US Department of Energy sponsored-National Carbon Capture Centre, Imperial College London, and Centre of Applied Research, Kentucky, along with a few global research organizations that followed up with their certifications, “to prove the technology works".
At around the same time, in early 2012, they entered a carbon capture and innovation competition organized by the UK government, which resulted in a government grant of $4 million and collaborations with UK universities such as Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle, all of whom had the necessary equipment and experience. CCSL is, therefore, headquartered in the UK.
“We don’t have the luxury of spending millions and millions of dollars on a lab of our own," says Sharma. “(Our) American competitors have raised $80 to $240 million while we have survived on $6.5 million of equity and $6 million crowd-funded. So we are not only the most capital-efficient in the area but we are the only company in the space that’s profitable."
CCSL’s last round of investment of about $4.2 million came from Eldon Capital Management in September 2015—in 2011, they raised $1.1 million in a second round of investments, including from Blume Ventures in Mumbai.
“This is the only tech that can stop climate change—it’s a $256 billion industry," mentions Bumb as countries attempt to reduce their carbon footprint by 25-30% by 2030.
“We are not looking for any more (investments) immediately. The best financing is customer financing—when she/he buys the product," says Sharma. “We have reached that place now."
Within the company, Sharma handles products, markets, customers and campaigns while research, partnerships, universities, labs and technology development comes under Bumb.
They are both unforthcoming about revealing sales numbers, though they have been in the business for eight years. Sharma says, “We have to protect that information since we are a small company fighting the big gorillas."
Getting the tech right
The founders say their technology has three main advantages: it’s cheaper, it allows for the captured carbon dioxide to be monetized and it will help the user get a certified green product.
The Tuticorin chemical plant, for example, used coal to fire up its boiler and bought carbon dioxide to make its soda ash. Now, the plant captures the carbon dioxide produced by the burning fuel and uses that to produce soda ash (used in detergents, soaps, glass, etc.), which they sell. Soda ash in India costs about Rs17,000 (or $250) a tonne, according to Sharma.
The deal with the Tuticorin plant served both parties. “I am a businessman. I never thought of saving the planet. I needed a reliable stream of CO2, and this was the best way of getting it," managing director of the plant, Ramachandran Gopalan, told BBC Radio in January.
The cost of carbon capture depends on a number of variables—the type of capture technology, the type of transport, the type of storage site, where the project is located, what industry the CO2 is captured from, whether the captured CO2 is used for another operation such as enhanced oil recovery, etc.
CCSL is currently working with a power plant, a heat generator, a steel company and a company in Vizag whose factory makes a chemical that can be used as a colouring agent. They have four large projects, two from Norway, “each one a potentially $200 million" business, says Sharma.
“They have a competitive advantage in CO2 capture—their technology reduces the cost by 30%," says Johann Clere, a strategic partnerships director at Veolia, a company that provides water, waste and energy management solutions. “Also, Veolia has an open innovation approach—we believe in fast track development," Clere said over the phone from Paris. Veolia announced a partnership agreement with CCSL in March for a large-scale rollout of CCSL’s patented carbon dioxide (CO2) separation technology.
Globally, there are different places where carbon can be stored: There are deep saline, salt formations and depleted oil reservoirs apart from coal bed methane recovery. Captured carbon can be injected into sea beds or mines to be stored forever, but this is not without repercussions—it could harm marine life near point of injection, for example. In some countries, it helps in oil recovery, but India does not have that many depleted fields. CCSL is helping to use the captured CO2 for a baking soda plant, and also in factories making urea, fertilizer and cement.
When CO2 is used to enhance production of methane, oil and gas, the extra energy offsets the cost of carbon capture. When the production of gas declines in unconventional reservoirs, CO2 can be injected underground to drive out the extra methane (called secondary methane).
“The fact remains that India is a fossil-based economy—we have the fourth largest coal reserves in the world," says Vishal of IIT-Bombay. “India’s focus is towards renewables and afforestation, to reduce emissions. Companies have been asked to demonstrate technology to address the issue. So in that sense, this (carbon capture) is an amazing industry, which will flourish for a few decades as long as we believe in it."
“We are creating the next industrial revolution and we can work anywhere that has a stack and a chimney," Sharma says. “Our company knows one thing well—that’s carbon capture. Anything beyond is a partnership."
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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