Sergey Brin-Backed Carbon Removal Startup Nears Firing Up Its New Plant

By Michelle Ma
April 29, 2024

280 Earth CEO John Pimentel will appear at Bloomberg Green Festival in July. In his first comments since taking over, he explains why he’s aiming for a moonshot.

Of all the climate technologies under development, direct air capture (DAC) is perhaps the biggest reach. Efforts to suck carbon dioxide out of the ambient air are still fledgling, with the biggest DAC plant in the world currently removing just 4,000 tons annually.

That’s equivalent to just a few seconds of humanity’s emissions. But cleaning up the atmosphere is critical to meeting global net-zero goals. Many companies, from Microsoft Corp. to Meta Platforms Inc., have already paid millions of dollars to nascent startups to remove CO2 in the future. Doing so is an essential part of their own corporate climate targets.

John Pimentel is leading one of these moonshot efforts as the new chief executive officer of 280 Earth, a DAC startup spun out of Alphabet’s X lab. He believes his startup’s technology sidesteps some of the main challenges facing the DAC industry, such as energy intensity and high costs. The two-year-old company is in the final stages of commissioning its first 500-ton commercial demonstration plant in The Dalles, Oregon.

In his first public conversation since taking on the CEO role, Pimentel spoke with Bloomberg Green about 280 Earth’s plans for the future. Pimentel will also be a speaker at Bloomberg Green Festival taking place July 10th through 13th in Seattle.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Before joining 280 Earth, you worked in wastewater treatment and wind and solar energy development. Why did you decide to move into carbon dioxide removal now after working on three very tangible, need-them-now technologies?

You even missed a couple. I also worked in a municipal solid waste recycling efficiency business, and I started in this whole field with a biofuels company called Pacific Ethanol back in 2002.

Each one of those industries were first-of-a-kind technologies that, when they were first seen by the financial marketplace, were looked at skeptically, because they had high costs and low experience. Each one of those industries went through a process in which they started with high risk and low interest from traditional project finance entities through a development curve. That led to what you see now, which is standardized, mature, market-accepted technologies.

I firmly believe that, after a couple years of study and work in this field, DAC will follow that exact same pattern.

Why is direct air capture, a highly speculative technology, a priority for Google and for your investors, which include Google co-founder Sergey Brin?

Everyone who has studied the climate situation understands that we are simply producing more CO2 than our natural environment can absorb and sequester. And even if our governments and businesses are successful at reducing emissions with things like renewable energy and capturing those necessary emissions at the source, we still need to have carbon removal at scale in order to reverse the path that we’re on. So that’s the real interest that Google and our investors have.

280 Earth’s approach to DAC uses waste heat from sources like data centers. Your pilot facility is being built next to a Google data center in The Dalles, Oregon. How does this benefit tech companies like Google with massive data center operations and emissions?

The benefit for our industrial partner will be providing supplemental cooling services. We bring in hot water from our waste heat partner and return cooler water to them. So they’ll use less water, less energy and less chemistry. Their equipment will work less hard, so they’ll have a longer life on their capital expenditures. There are also other industrial waste heat sources like power plants, ethanol plants, chemical refineries, oil refineries and cement plants. Data centers are an obvious demand opportunity for us because of the growth that’s by all accounts massive, but the application will be available for all sorts of waste heat partners.

DAC requires significant energy to sequester CO2, and the efficiency of this process is low because of how diluted CO2 is in the air. How much energy does 280 Earth’s DAC system require, and outside of waste heat sources, where else do you plan on sourcing it?

To the question of electricity load, that’s proprietary information. We believe our system will be the most efficient energy user of the engineered carbon removal solutions.

We’re blessed at this first site in The Dalles, Oregon, with renewable electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration, which is primarily driven by hydroelectric, wind and some nuclear. At future sites, especially at large-scale facilities, one of our siting criteria is the ability to co-locate new, renewable energy. We look for situations where we’ll be able to power the system with not just renewable but new capacity.

And why does it make sense to use renewables to power DAC rather than just keep the lights on?

We’re not trying to compete with or take away new renewable capacity that will go to the grid. We’re looking to try and create new renewable capacity specifically based on our energy draw and our long-term commitment to that facility. So when we think about locating mega-scale plants, a million tons and larger, we look for several criteria: first, proximity to where the CO2 can be sequestered; second, the capability to generate new electricity and third, the waste heat component that helps our system run more efficiently.

CO2 pipelines have faced heavy local opposition. Is 280 Earth planning to rely on pipelines at The Dalles or in the future?

In The Dalles, we’ll likely move the CO2 via rail to where it’ll be offloaded and sequestered. At future sites, we’re trying to locate in proximity to storage to minimize the amount of piping necessary. But there are already a significant amount of CO2 pipelines in the United States with a great safety record, and we will be happy to connect into a pipeline that’s established.

Will 280 Earth work with oil companies, and are you concerned about DAC’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry?

We are in partnership with some oil companies who plan to sequester the CO2 permanently underground and not use it for enhanced oil recovery. Frankly, I believe that the oil companies are a tremendous resource of subsurface knowledge and expertise. If we want to put this CO2 back in the ground where it came from, working with oil companies is a wise choice.

Would you allow the captured carbon from your DAC be used in enhanced oil recovery?


What can we expect from 280 Earth over the next year, and what does success for 280 Earth look like 10 years down the road?

By the end of the decade, we plan to deliver 10 million tons of DAC capacity that will be up and operating by 2030. Our growth plans include a modular system, so our 5,000-ton module will be online in 2025. Over the next 10 years, we’ll be rolling out all sorts of projects that will materially impact the level of CO2 in the atmosphere.