Inside Charm Industrial’s big bet on corn stalks for carbon removal

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In 2018, Reinhardt and three others cofounded Charm (a mashup of “char” and “farm”) to build a business around what they saw as a more promising approach. The initial plan was to gasify biomass, a similar process to pyrolysis but done at higher temperatures, to produce biochar and hydrogen. They expected the latter to be the real moneymaker.

But the company found that picking up the biomass and transporting it to a centralized gasification facility was far too expensive, because biomass is “too fluffy.” It’s bulky, heavy, and unwieldy, increasing the cost of handling and moving it—a painful lesson that biofuels companies learned more than a decade ago.

In 2020, Charm’s chief scientist, cofounder Shaun Meehan, had a bright idea: if the company was willing to do what Reinhardt describes as “half-assed gasification,” yielding bio-oil instead of hydrogen, the equipment could fit into the back of a semi-trailer. Then the company could pull right up to farms and carry out the process at the edge of the fields.

Now Charm, which has about 30 employees, pays farmers to allow it to pick up unwanted plant materials left after harvesting. It’s also looking at carrying out the same process with trees and plants removed from forests—say, for fire prevention or in the aftermath of droughts. Separately, the company has begun to explore whether it can use the resulting bio-oil to clean up steel and iron production, the dirtiest industrial sector (see related story).

The business model would make no sense in any other time (and perhaps it doesn’t in this one). But a growing number of companies are willing to pay the high cost of carbon removal and storage as a way of balancing out their own emissions, to help support the emerging market, or as a form of climate philanthropy. So far, around 40 organizations have purchased tons of removal from the company.

Charm’s CEO Peter Reinhardt at the company’s San Francisco headquarters.

WINNI WINTERMEYER

Reinhardt says the company expects to eventually drive down the cost to $50 a ton of removed and stored carbon dioxide as it scales up its operations. For one, it plans to build up a fleet of semi-trailers equipped with high-capacity, fast pyrolyzers developed in-house. Eventually, the company hopes to also create a type of combine harvester with a pyrolyzer unit that can pick up and convert agricultural remains wherever they fall in the fields, saving the costs of collecting, bundling, and moving the material.

Tough economics

Charm’s approach to carbon removal and storage offers several advantages relative to other methods, observers say. 

It promises to lock away the carbon for very long periods, while options like planting trees or altering farming methods to hold more carbon in soil can be quickly reversed when trees die or fields are tilled. It prevents emissions that would otherwise occur in many circumstances.

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