How Etosha Cave is transforming carbon into commodities for our sustainability

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 21, 2024 12:32 PM EDT
Etosha Cave. Photo credit: Twelve

Funding for climate change projects has seen a recent uptake. Notably, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) dedicated part of its $500 billion in funding to boost clean energy. The President’s Budget has also invested nearly 50 billion in discretionary budget authority to tackle the climate crisis. With a novel approach, Etosha Cave, co-founder of chemical technology startup Twelve is at the forefront of scientists combating global warming. She has developed one of the world’s first carbon transformation product, converting carbon dioxide into plastics and transportation fuels.

“It will take decades to transition our sources of energy, and some industrial emissions have an inherently high carbon cost that may never go away, such as the manufacturing of steel, glass and cement. Carbon transformation closes the loop and helps curb the impact of such emissions.” Cave said about the future of carbon transformation.

Cave has been passionate about energy and climate change since her childhood. Growing up in Texas, she lived near an abandoned oil and gas site with chemicals leaching into the water table, threatening the health of the community. It became her mission to turn what would otherwise wind up as pollution into useful items. A high achiever, she joined the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) during high school.

She attended Olin College on an NSBE scholarship graduating with a bachelor’s in engineering in 2006. Cave worked at the McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica where she serviced HVAC systems and built the laser diode for future NASA missions. She went on to enrol in a doctoral program at Stanford University that would serve as the basis for Twelve’s technology. During her PhD, Cave worked on electrochemical approaches that could be used to convert carbon dioxide and water into useful plastics and household cleaners. She built a gas analysis system that could determine the composition of electrochemical reactions in real time.

But Cave was not content with leaving her ideas in theory and set out to actualize them. She wanted to repurpose carbon dioxide and create economic value from the waste. At a gathering for the university’s space club, Cave met two students who were equally passionate about electrolysis – the chemical process that uses electricity and a metal catalyst to split molecules of carbon dioxide. Together they co-founded Twelve, named for the most abundant isotope of carbon, carbon-12 to recycle carbon dioxide.

“Twelve is an homage to carbon 12, the common isotope of carbon, and “Opus” is a reference to our desire to rewrite the story of carbon dioxide. We’re continuing the work of developing metal catalysts to scale this research and, ideally, to get to a point where we could make diesel fuel from CO2 and water in a way that is cost-effective and helps improve energy efficiency,” Cave said about how Twelve is transforming carbon dioxide to viable products.

Initially, Twelve struggled to raise money from the venture capitalists in Silicon Valley with its only investor being the government through the Small Business Innovation Research Program. The company has since received funding through project grants for carbon dioxide conversion and has won multiple awards. It secured $57 million in series A funding in 2021, bringing its total private follow-on funding to nearly $200 million. Twelve has been able to scale its operations with the support of public and private funders.

With government funds from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, Twelve has developed a new catalyst strong enough for industrial use. They have created a prototype electrochemical reactor capable of scaling carbon dioxide transformation and transforming carbon dioxide into 16 different potentially useful molecules that can be used for a variety of industrial purposes. In a process called carbon transformation, the company is turning carbon dioxide into useful industrial products such as plastics and carbon-neutral jet fuel.

Twelve is working with fuel manufacturers to help planes make the transition from standard fossil fuel to fuel made from recycled carbon. It has an agreement with Alaska Airlines and Microsoft to deliver 1,000 gallons of the fuel to blend with conventional fuel. The company has also partnered with Mercedes, Trinseo, SoCalGas and PG&E to advance their technology and further sustainability commitments. Additionally, Twelve has a deal to provide e-commerce firm Shopify with $2.5 million worth of jet fuel and a partnership to create polypropylene with LanzaTech.

Cave envisages carbon transformation as a fundamental part of an effective climate strategy. Twelve plans on extending its operations beyond repurposing carbon dioxide sourced from industrial plants to carbon dioxide captured directly from the air. It also intends to build a big enough market for carbon dioxide removal to create the capacity to deal with the lingering greenhouse gasses.