MIT startup has big plans to pull carbon from the air.
Noya has developed low-power, modular units that can be combined to create facilities for removing millions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
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The United Nations has stated that in order to avert the worst effects of climate change, we must not only limit emissions but also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Direct air capture and storage is one way for removing carbon. These technologies are still in their infancy, but many attempts are underway to rapidly scale them up in the hopes of avoiding the most disastrous effects of climate change.
Josh Santos ’14 developed the firm Noya, which is striving to speed with a low-power, modular device that can be mass-produced and deployed globally. The company intends to power its system with renewable energy and to locate its facilities near injection wells for underground carbon storage.
Noya sells carbon credits to help enterprises achieve net-zero emissions targets by using third-party auditors to certify the amount of carbon dioxide gathered.
“Think of our systems for direct air capture like solar panels for carbon negativity,” says Santos, who formerly played a role in Tesla’s much-publicized manufacturing scale-up for its Model 3 electric sedan. “We can stack these boxes in a LEGO-like fashion to achieve scale in the field.”
The three-year-old company is now constructing its first commercial pilot facility and claims that its first full-scale commercial facility will be capable of removing millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year. Noya has already obtained millions of dollars in presales from organizations such as Shopify, Watershed, and a university endowment to help build its first facilities.
Santos claims that his stay at MIT impacted his ambitious approach, which is motivated by the urgent need to scale carbon removal methods.
“I need to thank all of my MIT professors,” Santos says. “I don’t think any of this would be possible without the way in which MIT opened up my horizons by showing me what’s possible when you work really hard.”
Finding a purpose
Growing up in the southeastern U.S., Santos says he first recognized climate change as an issue by experiencing the increasing intensity of hurricanes in his neighborhood. One year a hurricane forced his family to evacuate their town. When they returned, their church was gone.
“The storm left a really big mark on me and how I thought about the world,” Santos says. “I realized how much climate change can impact people.”
When Santos first arrived at MIT as an undergraduate, he studied climate change and energy systems, eventually concentrating in chemical engineering. He also learnt about startups through courses at the MIT Sloan School of Management and participation in MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which introduced him to academics in the early phases of commercializing MIT lab research.
More than the coursework, Santos believes MIT instilled in him a drive to make a positive difference in the world, thanks in part to a four-day development program called LeaderShape that he attended during the Institute’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) in January.
“LeaderShape teaches students how to lead with integrity, and the core lesson is that any privilege you have you should try to leverage to improve the lives of other people,” Santos says. “That really stuck with me. Going to MIT is a huge privilege, and it makes me feel like I have a responsibility to put that privilege to work to the betterment of society. It shaped a lot of how I view my career.”
Santos worked at Tesla after graduation, then at Harley-Davidson, where he worked on electric powertrains. He eventually realized that electric vehicle technology could not solve climate change on its own, so he co-founded Noya with friend Daniel Cavaro in the spring of 2020.
Noya’s initial concept was to attach carbon capture devices to cooling towers in order to keep equipment costs low. Because their machines were too small to qualify for the new tax credits in the law, which required each system to capture at least 1,000 tons of CO2 per year, the founders pivot in response to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022.
Noya’s new systems will assemble thousands of modular units to form massive facilities capable of capturing millions of tons of CO2 right next to existing injection wells.
Noya’s units are roughly the size of a solar panel, measuring 6 feet wide, 4.5 feet tall, and 1 foot thick. In each unit, a fan blows air through tiny channels containing Noya’s carbon capture material. The material solution developed by the company consists of an activated carbon monolith and a proprietary chemical feedstock that binds to the carbon in the air. When the material becomes carbon-saturated, electricity is applied to it, and a light vacuum collects a pure stream of carbon.
The goal is for each of Noya’s modules to remove about 60 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year.
“Other direct air capture companies need a big hot piece of equipment — like an oven, steam generator, or kiln — that takes electricity and converts it to get heat to the material,” Santos says. “Any lost heat into the surrounding environment is excess cost. We skip the need for the excess equipment and their inefficiencies by adding the electricity directly to the material itself.”
Carbon Capture – Scaling with urgency
Noya is testing an experimental module from its Oakland, California office in order to optimize its design. In 2024, Noya will open its first testing facility, which will remove approximately 350 tons of CO2 per year. For that facility, it has already secured renewable energy and injection storage partners. Noya intends to capture and remove thousands of tons of CO2 over the next few years, with the company’s first commercial-scale facility aiming to remove approximately 3 million tons of carbon annually.
“That design is what we’ll replicate across the world to grow our planetary impact,” Santos says. “We’re trying to scale up as fast as possible.”
Noya has already sold all of the carbon credits it expects to generate in its first five years, and the founders believe the growing demand from companies and governments to purchase high-quality carbon credits will outstrip supply for at least the next 10 years in the nascent carbon removal industry, which also includes approaches like enhanced rock weathering, biomass carbon storage, and ocean alkalinity enhancement.
“We’re going to need something like 30 companies the size of Shell to achieve the scale we need,” Santos says. “I think there will be large companies in each of those verticals. We’re in the early innings here.”
Santos believes the carbon removal market can scale without government mandates, but he also sees increasing government and public support for carbon removal technologies around the world.
“Carbon removal is a waste management problem,” Santos says. “You can’t just throw trash in the middle of the street. The way we currently deal with trash is polluters pay to clean up their waste. Carbon removal should be like that. CO2 is a waste product, and we should have regulations in place that are requiring polluters, like businesses, to clean up their waste emissions. It’s a public good to provide cleaner air.”