By Chris Meehan | Aug 14, 2020
Carbon dioxide capture systems
There's no getting around it: Brewing beer creates carbon dioxide (CO2). But it doesn't have to end up in the atmosphere, and Earthly Labs is providing a solution that helps breweries of all sizes capture and reuse or sell excess CO2.
"There are a lot of people working on really cool things to do with CO2, but there aren't too many that have focused on affordable carbon capture," says George, a serial green entrepreneur. "Many of those companies . . . need us to get the gas in the first place."
Earthly Labs, an aspiring B Corp. and 2016 first-round finalist for the Carbon XPRIZE, found its initial niche focusing on carbon capture with its CiCi Oak system for operations brewing 5,000 to 20,000 barrels a year. It captures between 45,000 and 113,000 kilograms of CO2 annually. The refrigerator-sized unit starts at about $75,000 and connects to existing brewing equipment.
The system pays for itself, according to George. "Denver Beer Co. is a flagship customer," she says. "They were the first one to pilot our CO2 exchange," she says.
The brewery began piloting the unit in 2018 and initially planned to use the CO2 to reduce costs, but then selling the high-quality gas to a cannabis cultivator. "We looked at the unit before they were going to sell the excess CO2," says George. "It had a payback of three to four years."
Under the recent pilot program Denver Beer Co. is selling excess CO2 to The Clinic, a cannabis grower. George says that means the CiCi system will pay for itself in as little as 18 months, and an early report from The Clinic shows that the CO2 from Denver Beer Co. has increased yield and potency.
"So they're able to leverage it as part of their investment strategy and use some of it for themselves and sell it to the grower," George explains.
"We believe it is incumbent on all small businesses to make choices to ensure they operate in as green and sustainable manner as possible," says Denver Beer Co. co-founder Charlie Berger. "The Earthly Labs unit is a good investment both from an economic perspective as well as an environmental one with its ability to reduce and recycle CO2 usage."
The CO2 Earthly Labs' system produces is purer than required for food and beverage-grade use. "The allowable limits for beverage-grade gas per VOC [volatile organic compounds] is 50 parts per million," notes George. "Our gases are purer than that, most are either non-detect or in that under 10 PPM level. We're scrubbing it even more than necessary to ensure beverage-grade gas."
Earthly Labs' system has three stages and uses some existing technologies as well as patented and patent-pending technologies and sensors to produce the gas. It licenses some technologies and works with U.S. manufacturers to produce its equipment, according to George.
"The first step is we scrub the gas to remove water. Particularly in a brewing environment, there's a lot of moisture in that gas while it's largely CO2. We have to get that out. because those molecules hold on to oxygen, which is the enemy of the brewer. So that's the first step and we use dryers to dry the gas. The second step is an activated carbon vessel, much like your water filtration system in your refrigerator. . . . That removes the VOCs and active gasses and elements that may be in that gas. The third step is a chiller that converts the gas to a liquid. It allows the brewer to store it in a CO2 storage device right on site," George explains.
"It's a pretty easy process" to set up, George continues. "We can deliver our system on three pallets and start capturing the gas the same day."
Some styles produce more CO2 than others, she adds, but the system works for all beer types. "Early on, we weren't sure. We had a prototype unit and we tested it here in Austin over the course of six months through a variety of beer types and also fermentation tank types, because we weren't sure if that would influence the outcome. The good news is that it works, you know, across the variety of beer types."
Brewers are showing a lot of interest. "We have about two dozen breweries that are in our portfolio. They have either installed or are we'll be installing them," George says. Beyond Denver Beer Co., Earthly Labs is working with Jackalope Brewing Company in Tennessee, Austin Beerworks in Texas, and Buoy Beer Company in Oregon.
Earthly Labs offers a compelling solution. "We help them reduce their costs. More fundamentally, most of them are like: 'I'm just blowing this into the atmosphere and then I go buy it. That doesn't make any sense. So yeah, I'd like to recover it and reuse it and if I have to buy 10 percent or 30 percent -- that's within reach.'," George says.
"The more interesting dynamic since COVID is just the shortage of CO2 supply in general," George notes.
A large amount of CO2 gas is produced during the production of ethanol for gasoline blends. Since gasoline sales dropped when the pandemic hit, less ethanol and CO2 are being produced. This has led to shortages and price increases, making Earthly Labs' products more enticing as a way to hedge against uncertainty.
To meet more demand, the company is already developing products for larger and smaller brewers. "We are piloting our smaller system, model Teak, and then we're working on a much larger system for brewers that would be 20,000 or 50,000 barrels up to 200,000 barrels," George says.
The Teak system has already worked on a 30-barrel system, George explains. "We're trying to get down to a 10-barrel system and then see if we can go lower. It's extremely low-flow carbon capture, which is just a radical idea. We're thrilled that we're pushing the envelope, but it has been harder to innovate in the time of COVID."
Challenges: "I think we are all challenged by COVID in general and how we manage our teams whether it's for installations to ensure safety in the field or for research and development," George says.
Opportunities: New markets, says George. "We've been asked by folks in other industries that have similar applications like distilleries, wineries, or cideries. So we're talking to folks in those areas as well as new applications in cannabis."
That could include converting the gas into a feeder for algae to produce biofuels, she adds.
Needs: "Our biggest goal or need would be for new customers that want to invest in carbon capture," says George.