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Porifera Seeks to Upturn Carbon Capture & Desalination

Carbon capture and water desalination couldn’t seem further apart. One seeks to grab large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and sequester them away from the planet’s atmosphere, and the other is a process for separating salt from seawater. Where’s the connection? It lies in the labs of Hayward, Calif.-based startup Porifera, a spinoff from the Lawrence Livermore National Lab that’s working to commercialize carbon nanotube membrane technology.

Since its founding last year, Porifera has been focusing on applications using carbon nanotube membranes — tiny, ultra-slippery, hollow arrangements of carbon atoms that allow gases and liquids to flow through at a rapid pace, while blocking larger molecules — for desalination. And just last week, the Livermore lab announced that Porifera has secured an exclusive license for the technology, which members of Porifera’s executive team helped develop.

But now the company is also digging into carbon capture applications, since Porifera — in partnership with the Livermore lab and UC Berkeley — has snagged a federal grant for the work under the Department of Energy’s program for high-risk green energy technologies.

Chief Technology Officer Olgica Bakajin (pictured at left), who joined Porifera this summer, headed up the research team that first demonstrated at Livermore the behavior of liquids and gases flowing through a carbon nanotube membrane (suggesting the potential for a cheaper, more efficient desalination tech). She described the basic discovery in a release from the lab back in 2006 as: “This is like having  a garden hose that can deliver as much water in the same amount of time as a fire hose that is ten times larger.”

In an interview on Monday, Bakajin explained how Porifera has prioritized its work, starting first with desalination and now expanding into carbon capture: “With desalination, if you can lower the price and energy use, everybody wants it. If you can make the membrane we think we can make, the market issues are not as big a deal.”

Carbon capture, by contrast, remains unproven at commercial scale. So without funding under the DOE’s high-risk fund, ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), Porifera would not have been venturing into that nascent market at this early stage, said Bakajin. “It’s a little more difficult on the market side.” So why not request ARPA-E funds for the desalination tech Porifera already had in the works? “From our read,” said Bakajin, “we did not think desalination fit in with the solicitation focused on energy.”

Porifera is not the only company trying to commercialize the carbon nanotube membrane research from Livermore. Porifera has the license, and several members of the original research team, but another San Francisco Bay Area startup — NanOasis — has recruited one of the principal investigators on the Livermore project, Jason Holt, and won an ARPA-E grant to help accelerate its work on a carbon nanotube membrane for desalination applications.

Desalination may present fewer hurdles than carbon capture at this point, and Porifera has already secured a $3.3 million grant from the Defense Department’s DARPA program to develop a more efficient desalinator, but both companies still have a long climb ahead on the road to commercial-scale deployment of desal tech.

As NanOasis founder and President Christopher Kennedy commented earlier this month, desalination projects are “particularly capital intensive” and can encounter political opposition (especially in California, where groups have raised concerns about damage to aquatic life, coastal wetlands and other environmental impacts) in addition to the high energy demands and high costs that the two startups hope to address with their more efficient technology.

In addition, a more efficient desalination system will require a lot more than superior membranes. “Salt removal is just one little piece,” said Bakajin. For the DARPA project, meant to produce a small, affordable water desalinator within three years, she said Porifera is working with partners and, “taking three or four new technologies,” each of which represents its own breakthrough, “and putting them together in one device.”

According to Bakajin, at least two other entities were competing for the license from Livermore, which she said came through in June, about a month before Bakajin joined Porifera. “Broad knowledge was gathered — the initial IP and subsequent filings. Somebody was going to license this,” she said.

That somebody wasn’t NanOasis. “The bottom line for us is that what was done at Livermore proved the concept,” Kennedy told me in an email, explaining why the company chose not to license. “But one cannot follow the processes developed at Livermore to make a commercial product except for possibly some very narrow, niche applications.” In other words, it lacked special sauce. That’s part of what these startups are racing to create.

Graphics courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Lab