Terraform Industries converts electricity and wind into synthetic natural gas for the first time | Tech Crunch

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The modern world depends on a vast network for capturing, processing, transporting and ultimately consuming hydrocarbons such as crude oil and natural gas. But these resources come at a cost: they're finite, and it's difficult to extract carbon dioxide from the ground and release it into the air.

Instead of reducing humanity's dependence on hydrocarbons — which is either impossible or undesirable or both, depending on who you ask — Terraform Industries' The solution is to generate this resource using electricity and wind through a system called a terraformer. Today, the startup announced that it has launched the demonstrator Terraformer and produced synthetic natural gas for the first time.

About the size of two shipping containers, the Terraformer consists of three subsystems: an electrolyzer, which converts solar energy into hydrogen; A direct air capture system that captures CO2; and a chemical reactor that takes these two inputs to produce pipeline-grade synthetic natural gas. The entire machine is optimized for a one megawatt solar array.

As CEO Casey Handmer admits, what the company does isn't “super original.” Electrolysis and sabatier chemical reactors are well-understood processes, for example. But the company was able to innovate in the process by building its proprietary direct air capture system and adapting it all to run on variable energy solar solar power. So while any particular subsystem can trace its origins to the nineteenth or twentieth century, the entire process is entirely new.

Image Credits: Terraform Industries

The result is some staggering cost reductions: Terraform says its system converts clean electricity into hydrogen for less than $2.50 per kilogram of H2 (currently, green hydrogen costs $5-11 per kilogram, Handmer estimates). A direct air capture system also filters CO2 Less than $250 per ton, the company said in a statement, is a world record.

The startup claims that improvements are already underway to further reduce these prices to ensure that synthetic natural gas fetches a price equivalent to conventionally available liquefied natural gas. Much of that depends on building cheap solar power (and lots of it) and producing the thousands of terraformers needed annually.

Indeed, while Handmer was an extraordinarily ambitious thinker, it would be a mistake to think that his head was stuck in the clouds. He was well aware that Terraform's plans would be dead in the water without a strong business case behind the company.

Terraform Industries

Image Credits: Terraform Industries (Opens in a new window)

“There's an idea that we're driving towards, which is that these amazing technologies for solving the climate problem are fundamentally uncapitalist because they don't make money,” he said. “Of course they consume more money than they make. It makes them really hard to scale. But if you can figure out some way to make more money than you use, you're inside the capitalist tent. That's just a system where money flows naturally. It's a difficult thing to do.”

Burbank, Calif.-based TerraFarm has contracts to sell small amounts of natural gas it produces to two unnamed utilities, but while the initial volume is low, “this is a very critical step,” Handmer said. “It shows that we have produced gas to their standards.”

The company is in talks to prototype or sell standalone electrolyzers as separate products and to make liquid fuels other than methane. Terraform is also taking reservations for the first production Terraformers — with the ultimate goal of growing factories to support architecture that could do nothing less than transform the world's energy systems.

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