Scaling Climate Solutions: How Plantd is Turning Atmospheric Carbon into Products Customers Love

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5
 min read
Daniella Meyer
/
5.6.24
5
 min read
May 8, 2024

More and more Americans are recognizing the need to take immediate action to stop the worst effects of global warming. But for many, the path is not clear. After all, avoiding a global rise in temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius is an enormous task — to manage this, we’d need to reduce net global emissions to zero by 2050 and keep them negative for the remainder of the century.

The reality is that a total transformation of our economy and society isn’t going to happen overnight. We should strive for it, but there’s a slim chance that everyone you know will wake up tomorrow and dramatically make their lifestyles ultra-sustainable.

Because of this challenge, leaders in both public and private sectors have been searching for climate solutions that can scale quickly and cost-effectively. One proposed solution is Direct Air Capture (DAC), which promises to draw down atmospheric CO2, effectively buying us time for the renewable energy transition we need. While intriguing, the problem with most Direct Air Capture solutions is that they don’t present an efficient or economical path to quickly and durably removing enough CO2 to impact our climate crisis. 

This is where Plantd co-founders Huade Tan and Nathan Silvernail saw an opportunity. Could they engineer a way to quickly, reliably draw carbon out of the atmosphere — and at the same time create a durable product that millions of customers would find useful? They believed the answer to this question was a resounding yes.

How can we best capture and store atmospheric CO2?

Before Plantd, our founders designed and built the environmental controls and life support systems on the cargo and crew Dragon spacecraft. This involved building systems that pulled carbon dioxide out of the air faster than it was produced. Each day on the mission, these systems cycled carbon from a gaseous state to a solid state, maintaining a breathable atmosphere on the spacecraft to keep the astronauts alive.

After their time at SpaceX, Huade and Nathan turned their attention to the climate crisis. For them, one of the few things more fascinating than advancing human life beyond Earth is to create solutions to sustain life on Earth. 

Headshots of Huade Tan and Nathan Silvernail, former SpaceX engineers.

Huade and Nathan used an engineering first-principles approach to solving Earth’s global warming problem, breaking down assumptions to find the most direct path forward.

Just like the Dragon crewship, Earth has excess CO2 in its atmosphere. This CO2 is in its gaseous state and needs to be transformed into its solid state to be removed from the atmosphere. 

When considering the best way to capture and store atmospheric CO2, our founders developed three overarching requirements:

  1. First, the carbon capture process must be inexpensive and effective
  2. Second, we must store the carbon in products that are used on a large scale
  3. Third, and most critically, the product must be something people want to buy to continue driving demand for the products.

With these three criteria, the climate solution could scale quickly enough to make a true impact. 

Let’s explore the why behind each of these points.

Step 1: Identify the most efficient way to capture atmospheric carbon 

To address the first criteria for developing their climate solution, our founders studied many different ways to capture atmospheric carbon.

They identified the most cost-effective and resource-efficient way to capture atmospheric carbon at scale is through plants. Thanks to photosynthesis, plants naturally absorb water and CO2 and transform it into oxygen and glucose (energy). This process fuels the plant’s growth and forms cellulose (the fibers of the plant) which is essentially carbon in a solid form.

The founders spent nearly a year researching and testing various plants to find a species that demonstrated extremely high growth rates and produced strong fibers. 

Today, our team is growing perennial grass that produces the same quantity of biomass as common commercial tree species using 4-9 times less land. This growth rate translates to 5-33 times more carbon capture than commercial timber — making it an ideal material to rapidly remove CO2 from the atmosphere!

Once our founders identified this high-impact carbon removal method, they were able to move on to searching for the best applications.

Plantd grass shows 4-9x biomass productivity and 5-33x carbon capture compared to the most common timber species.

Step 2: Identify materials we use on a large scale 

With their solution ready to go, our founders thought carefully about where it could make the biggest impact. The construction industry was the clear application, with embodied carbon emissions from the built environment representing 11% of all greenhouse gasses.

By mass, the materials we use most are the ones we build with: cement, steel, and timber. 

Each significantly impacts Earth’s environment and contributes to global warming:

  • Cement, concrete's binder, is the world's most produced material. Cement production is the highest polluter of the three, causing billions of tonnes of emissions annually. 
  • Iron ore, the second most produced material, is steel's main ingredient. Mining of iron ore is energy-intensive, damages our environment, and results in toxic air and water pollution.
  • Finally, while timber is typically seen as a green material, timber harvesting contributes to deforestation, air pollution, and biodiversity loss.

By replacing these construction materials with our carbon-negative alternative, our founders knew we could dramatically reduce emissions from construction — and simultaneously use Plantd materials to capture and store carbon at scale.

And with the global population expected to increase by 2 billion people to 9.7 billion by 2050, there will continue to be demand for affordable and durable building materials. 

This leads us to the last key step in our journey: developing the product. 

The Plantd Structural Panel, our first product that locks away CO2 in the walls and roofs of homes.

Step 3: Create something people want to buy

The last, crucial step of scaling our climate solutions was developing products that customers want. 

Fortunately, there is a growing recognition that climate change poses real risks to our global supply chain and business operations. Consumers are also (slowly) pushing for sustainable materials and more transparent supply chains. Many just want to know where their stuff comes from and how it’s made. 

Enter our first product, the Plantd Structural Panel.

The Plantd Structural Panel locks away carbon dioxide in the form of walls, floors, and roofs in homes. 

When comparing Plantd Structural Panels to Oriented Strand Board (OSB), the product it replaces, our panels have:

And our team is partnering with industry leaders to develop new product lines that solve problems and meet high-performance standards. 

With these metrics, we have demonstrated that using climate-smart materials doesn’t mean sacrificing quality. With Plantd, you get superior products made from an ultra-low carbon production process. 

What’s next for Plantd?

Since the beginning, our mission has been to move fast to fix global warming using a first-principles approach. Three years after Plantd’s founding, we are beginning production at our Oxford, North Carolina factory, and we are soon rolling out our product to our first customers.

At Plantd, our team of engineers, scientists, farmers, technicians, thinkers, and dreamers are working together to create a future made from carbon. 

We believe that we don’t have to sacrifice quality of life to solve climate change — instead, we can continue to flourish, as long as we use the resources available to us in a smart and scalable way.

Curious to learn more about Plantd’s carbon capture solution, investment opportunities, or building applications? Get in touch with us at hello@plantdmaterials.com.

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