Meet this XPRIZE finalist who helps industries convert carbon dioxide into methanol for useful fuel

Rakshith Belur's technology can be adopted by carbon dioxide-emitting industries to produce methanol from the emissions they would normally dispense into the atmosphere.
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The conversion of harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) gas into renewable fuels and valuable chemicals is considered a promising way to cut the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. Methanol is one of these renewable energy sources that can be made using CO2.

Methanol is a clean source of energy that can be used as fuel for transport and other useful products. It can also be used to form acetic acid and formaldehyde used in industrial processes.

When Bengaluru-based entrepreneur Rakshith Belur joined Airbus India as an aerospace engineer, he had no idea he would later start a business that converts CO2 to methanol.

In the back of his mind, he always wanted to become an entrepreneur and make a difference in fighting climate change. But climate change is a global phenomenon and a large issue. How could one person make a difference?

When inspiration strikes

“One night in 2015, I was reading about my grandfather -- a man who had introduced and popularised typewriting in the Malnad region,” he says. “There was no connection between typewriting and climate change. But I began thinking about how my grandfather had created an impact by focussing on a smaller issue and using all available resources.”

Rakshith Belur, Co-founder, Breathe Applied Sciences

While he was searching for inspiration, Rakshit stumbled upon the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. The competition sought to encourage the development of breakthrough technologies to convert CO2 emissions from power plants and industrial facilities into valuable products such as building materials and alternative fuels. Rakshith thought this could be his chance to enter the field of climate change tech.

I started writing to various people working in Indian academia. I knew chemistry would play a key role in this venture, and being an aerospace engineer, I was relatively an outsider to the field,” he says.

After several rejections, Rakshith found Umesh Waghmare. “Umesh was a physicist and professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR). It was the same place I had done my PhD from,” Rakshith says.

Umesh connected Rakshith with Sebastian Peter, who had also joined JNCASR as a faculty fellow. Incidentally, Sebastian was a chemist who was working in the same area Rakshith wanted to venture into.

Taking the plunge

”It took some time for me to convince the professors that we should participate in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition by converting CO2 into methanol. I finally convinced them to help launch Breathe Applied Sciences in 2016. We became a research team and business focussing on scalable, efficient, and selective conversion of CO2 into fuels,” Rakshith says.

The team works out of JNCASR and conducts all its research there.

Breathe's reactor at JNCASR

In theory, if CO2 is mixed with hydrogen, it gives methanol. But Rakshith and the Breathe team knew the desired reaction would not happen by merely mixing them. They needed the right conditions, efficient converters, and catalysts, so that the entire process happened economically and resulted in a usable end product.

Further, the presence of multiple gases in emissions, including moisture and air pollutants, affect the efficiency and durability of the catalyst in CO2 reduction reactions. Rakshith says, “Since it is expected to follow several complex reaction mechanisms, selective conversion to a desired chemical was difficult. In addition, CO2 reduction process required H2, but sufficient generation of H2 is one of the biggest challenges to the human kind."

However, the secret to crack this complex reaction lies in the catalysts and reactors.

We proposed a new strategy to design promising materials for the efficient and selective conversion of CO2 into methanol. We combined information obtained from experiments and first-principles calculations on alloys, intermetallic, bimetallics, and core-shell materials based on low cost catalysts," Rakshit explains.

Breathe uses machine learning algorithms to identify descriptors of catalytic activity. It uses them in theoretical analysis to predict specific materials that hold promise for CO2 reduction. “The reduction process is tested in labscale using simulated flue gas stream,” he adds.

Translating the work done in academia to the industry is a daunting task. What works at academic levels are for scales lower than institutional or industrial scales. Rakshith explains, "This is not a new problem. However, I would say the competition timelines are extremely challenging and we have succeeded in making the technology relevant for the world. We have learned to make modifications along the way and move fast to meet the short deadline."

Applications

Breathe's technology can be adopted by CO2-emitting industries, which can produce methanol from the emissions they would normally dispense into the atmosphere. They can then sell the methanol to other companies. “Methanol-consuming industries will, in turn, find it cheaper to buy it from these CO2-emitting industries,” he adds.

Armed with this idea, the Breathe team was going to enroll in the XPRIZE competition. But on the last day of registration, Rakshith and the team realised they had to shell out $8,000 (approximately Rs 5.5 lakh) to participate in the contest.

“A meeting was arranged where the President of JNCASR took the bold decision to fund 75 percent of the registration fee,” Rakshith says. “The amount was arranged before midnight and the registration was done the very same day. We happened to be the last team to register. This is an experience I will always remember,” he adds.

In April 2018, Rakshith and the Breathe team reached the finals of the competition, and earned $500,000 as a milestone prize. They were the only Indian team in the competition.

“JNCASR supported us a lot. The technology developed on a laboratory lab scale at JNCASR is now being implemented in the real conditions through XPRIZE,” Rakshith explains.

“Most of the technology development happened at JNCASR through various funding agencies and partly by the milestone prize. We have now been given the approval for incubation which will give us exclusive rights on the technology,” he adds.

Despite getting backing and seeing success with their technology, the trio didn’t quit their day jobs. “From the start, it was about chasing goals that are widely believed to be impossible. We do our day jobs and still work with Breathe on a mission which has high risk,” he says.

Its current focus is on the development of technology to convert CO2 from combustion flue gas (industrial emissions) to methanol, leading to an end-to-end solution to the problem of CO2 disposal. “We are in the phase of demonstrating the technology at industrial scale. Before the end of this year, we are planning to put a plant in a power station in Wyoming,” he says.

“We currently have a lot of interest coming in for converting hundreds of tons of CO2 per day. Now, the focus is on Wyoming, and later, the technology will be industry-ready and will be deployed at various places,” he adds.

Rakshith says that at present, the technology is being scaled up at JNCASR, and is therefore compliant with all the norms. "Necessary approvals/licences will be sought for commercialisation," he adds.

With this model of CO2 conversion, Breathe aims to target 10 percent of the $37 billion methanol market in the next five years.

Rakshith’s work is fairly capital-intensive, so the team is also on the lookout for investors.

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