Karin Calvinho is a Ph.D. Candidate at Rutgers University with five years of experience in heterogeneous electrocatalysts for energy conversion and storage. She has been working on carbon dioxide reduction catalysts for the past four years, building on her experience with oxygen evolution, study of luminescent lanthanide materials and theoretical modelling of excited electronic states. She has presented her work in 15 national and international conferences and co-authored four peer-reviewed publications. She was also awarded three prestigious fellowships since her work as an undergraduate research assistant and recently received the Van Dyke Award for Excellence in Research. She is one of the co-founders of RenewCO2, a start-up using carbon dioxide to make polymers and chemicals. Finally, Karin is the student representative of the New Catalysis Society and was one of the of the organizing chairs of BRASCON for three years, helping to build a lively community of scientists across academia, industry, and government, with the goal of bridging Brazil’s innovation gap and aiding in professional development of graduate students.
Can you explain to us a little bit about the chemical process that made RenewCO2?
RenewCO2 uses a new catalyst to convert carbon dioxide, electricity, and water into fully renewable monomers for consumer plastics. Our proprietary catalyst is the first to convert CO2 into monomers with high selectivity and more than 90% energy efficiency. One of the main advantages of this process is that it can be powered by intermittent electricity sources such as wind and solar, helping to balance the grid. Additionally, it has the potential to decarbonize thermoelectric power generation, biofuel production, and many other CO2-emitting processes if coupled to carbon capture.
Our catalysts are used to accelerate the proton and electron transfer reaction from water to CO2, converting it to alcohols and aldehydes. The selectivity of the reaction is controlled by the reaction conditions, such as temperature and pH, as well as the catalyst crystal structure. On the anode, water is converted to oxygen.
The field of CO2 use has been growing immensely over the past decade, with significant advances in research and efforts in developing commercial processes. What makes our technology stand out is the chemistry of the catalysts: they operate by hydride transfer, a pathway that is employed by nature to fix carbon dioxide with minimal energy requirements. As a result, we get to C2, C3, and even C4 products at an applied potential of 0 V (versus the reversible hydrogen electrode), while the best copper-based catalysts still require more than 500 mV. This translates to much better process economics since the operational cost is highly sensitive to power consumption.
The discovery of that process came out of your graduate research at Rutgers—did you think you were going to co-found a start-up when you started your research? In retrospect, which requirements of the job were you most prepared to take on? And which were you least prepared to execute?
When I started grad school, I only knew I wanted to be a research chemist, and that I wanted to advance research in catalysis for renewable energy. Being an entrepreneur was not in my dreams, and frankly I always thought owning a business was scary and life-consuming. After we made this catalyst discovery, we realized it would hardly have an impact on how products are manufactured if we didn't take on the task of demonstrating it works on a large scale, and that this would be done better in a company. A sense of purpose led us to create RenewCO2.
As a scientist, I was prepared to work together with the co-founders effectively, identify crucial problems, come up with creative solutions, and a plan to test them. It also prepared me to communicate the research effectively and write proposals, as well as to not be discouraged when we get rejections and just persist.
What I wasn't prepared for was the business aspect: how to make sure that our process not only has an impact, but generates revenue for our customer? How much risk is an early-adopter willing to tolerate? What is a good business plan? I'm still learning, and grateful for all of the support that our mentors, the ACS entrepreneurial training, the university, and partners provide, asking the important questions and guiding us throughout this journey.
How did you and your colleagues get your patent? Your funding?
The Rutgers Office of Research Commercialization was absolutely instrumental in protecting our intellectual property and granting us funding for development. They led the patenting process and gave us the first grant for demonstrating the process through TechAdvance. We have also received the Grossman Innovation Prize from Rutgers to develop a prototype, and won the Phase I NASA CO2 Conversion Challenge for designing a process to make sugars from carbon dioxide on Mars. To obtain more funding, we're currently applying to SBIR grants, discussing research agreements, and pitching to investors.
Where is RenewCO2 at right now—in its funding stages, are you going to market, have you already gone to market?
RenewCO2 is in its funding stages. We're gathering resources to move out of the university and develop an electrolyzer short stack that will be used in the pilot stage.
The chemicals RenewCO2 produces can be used for a myriad of purposes—how do you narrow down a target market? Who would that be?
RenewCO2 chose its first product, monoethylene glycol (MEG), due to the feedback we got from potential customers in I-Corps interviews. They pointed out that having a drop-in replacement for a petrochemical monomer is important for the early integration of our electrolyzers into their plastic production. Monoethylene glycol also has a large, established market that is growing around 5% a year, making it an ideal target.
What have been your biggest challenges transitioning from academic research to startup?
One of the biggest challenges is certainly having to narrow down our research to focus only on questions that will help bring our product to market. In the academic environment, we have ample tools to investigate reaction mechanisms, catalyst composition modification, and the surface science of it all. In the start-up, each resource (and time) comes with a more visible price tag, leading us to sharpen our focus.
Are you looking for collaboration? If so, who or what would be your ideal collaboration?
Yes, we're always looking for collaborations - both with CO2 suppliers (emission and capture) and monomer and polymer producers. We're looking for development partners that want to be at the forefront of CO2 conversion and are willing to share knowledge to speed up the integration of their streams to our electrolyzers. This will help us leapfrog through process integration challenges as we can work on critical challenges early on. We're also interested in partnering with electrolyzer manufacturers to speed up the development of commercial CO2 reduction stacks.
Where do you see yourself and RenewCO2 in the next five years? Ten years?
In five years, I see myself troubleshooting our pilot plant, crunching the numbers on a new techno-economic analysis, meeting with new investors, and relating the results to our development partners all the while interviewing candidates, because we need to grow our team. In ten years, I can imagine having large units in new locations and having meetings with our clients, pitching them a new product, while leading the development of new ones. Oh and, milk now comes in CO2-based jugs!
What do you do in your spare time, (if you have any)?
When not in the lab, I like to spend time cooking and sharing food with friends. Sitting down, having a bite, sharing stories, and connecting is so simple, so easy, but incredibly fulfilling. We're making memories that will last and building a community.
Anything else you would like to talk about?
I think none of the questions touched on the incredible people that are part of making RenewCO2 a reality. One of them is Anders Laursen, the CEO, who mentored me throughout my Ph.D. and is a wonderful business partner, always going above and beyond to ensure we excel, and who can fix instrumentation, write business plans, and come up with incredibly creative chemical solutions. His dedication is extraordinary. The second one Prof. Dismukes, who has an unwavering vision and always reminds us why it matters for us to do this work.