Alex Smith (MBA ’23) interviews Karan Khimji (MBA ’23) to gain insight into carbon capture plus storage as an instrumental tool for achieving net zero. Khimji is the co-founder of 44.01, which recently received a $5M round of funding for its innovative approach to permanent carbon storage.
To start off, tell us about yourself.
I grew up in Oman, and I went to undergrad in the US. I started at BC for a year and then transferred to NYU. I studied finance, leading to my consulting career.
I started off consulting at EY in Dubai for oil and gas companies in the Middle East. I then moved to Paris, where I consulted for European utilities and infrastructure funds focused on the energy transition. I advised them on buying and selling companies, mainly disposing of fossil fuel assets like coal, gas plants, and acquiring or developing renewables.
Can you provide some context for carbon storage? What problem is the industry trying to solve?
The climate problem is very broad, and there are many layers to tackling this problem. There are a lot of industries that are going to be very difficult to decarbonize, like steel or cement production. Because we will never be able to zero out all emissions, we will be using oil and gas in the future. I think it’s naive to think that it’s going to completely disappear.
As countries, institutions, and companies set net zero targets, there are two ways to think about this. First of all, how do we zero out existing emissions? That is things like, let’s say, the energy sector building renewables instead of gas plants.
The other, complementary way is carbon removal. We need to figure out a way to remove emissions from the atmosphere that cannot be removed from the point of emission. How do we build carbon removal solutions? That’s where point source capture and direct air capture combined with storage comes into play.
Direct air capture—DAC—targets the atmosphere. It is going to be a significant tool in our arsenal to fight climate change, because it tackles legacy emissions over present emissions, or occurring emissions, like point source capture does.
The scale required of carbon removal is really going to depend on how much we can zero out the rest. We’re already at the point of 1.5 degrees warming. So we need to build out the technology to both reduce and remove emissions.
What is 44.01?
44.01 was an idea that was actually brought by my co-founder. 44.01 is the molecular mass of carbon dioxide. It was based on established scientific research by two leading professors in the field, Peter Kelemen and Juerg Matter, both of whom sit on 44.01’s scientific committee.
In 2018 they contributed to a New York Times article about how a specific rock in Oman can be used to store CO2 and have an impact on a global scale towards reversing climate change. My co-founder and I picked up on that idea and worked with them to implement this concept.
What are the different types of carbon storage and where does 44.01 fit in this landscape?
Carbon storage comes in many forms.
Currently, you inject it into a well, and it’s held in gaseous or semi-gaseous form under an impermeable layer of caprock that prevents the CO2 from leaking out. That’s what most of the oil and gas companies are doing, and that’s actually what nearly every carbon storage project currently operational is doing.
What we’re doing at 44.01 is entirely different. We are not storing CO2 in gaseous form.
We are injecting CO2 into a very porous rock formation found in Oman. The rock itself is called peridotite. It’s a rock that is normally found several miles below the ocean crust, but because of millions of years of tectonic activity in Oman and the UAE in particular, it’s actually present on the surface. We can access it much easier than anywhere else in the world.
What we do is inject [the CO2], and the CO2 reacts with the rock to form a carbonate mineral. That mineral is a form of solid carbon dioxide permanently removed from the atmosphere, forever.
Industries in every sector are working to decarbonize. Some are using carbon credits. What is the relationship between carbon storage and carbon credits?
Credits themselves are a very complex and fragmented topic at the moment. To measure, verify, and record exactly how much you’re removing is very difficult. At the moment, the most recognized carbon offsets are afforestation credits—building or protecting forests. I don’t see that as an enduring form of carbon removal because forests can burn down and the carbon stored in the trees is released back into the atmosphere. We are witnessing it right now, in California, or I believe in Washington state, there are literally forests that were set aside for offsets that are burning down.
So, it’s not permanent.
As companies look to decarbonize, they need to seek out higher quality credits. At the moment that’s not so easy because you literally need to go find it yourself. Stripe has done this. Stripe has built out a climate team looking at how they can decarbonize. Most companies can’t do that, especially small businesses, they can’t commit those resources. So as the market becomes more efficient, more high-quality carbon removal will be recognized in terms of higher prices.
Afforestation credits can be sold for a dollar per ton removed of CO2, whereas the carbon removal I’m talking about, which is DAC plus storage, is currently priced at $700-$1000 a ton. That illustrates how people value the durability of CO2 storage.
What are the challenges to scaling carbon storage?
There are different scaling challenges for each technology. The main one is heavy capex. There’s a lot of upfront capital that goes into scaling drilling operations.
Sourcing carbon dioxide is also a major challenge that we face, but the resources that are required actually exist already in the oil and gas industry. We can almost plug and play equipment, skills, and technology from the oil and gas industry for our technology. In the end, instead of taking the hydrocarbons out, we’re putting them back in. The infrastructure largely remains the same. It’s the technology of injection that we’re innovating on.
What resources can people reference if they want to learn more about DAC or carbon storage?
There are resources in the public domain for people that are interested in carbon dioxide removal or CDR technology. One is the cdrprimer.org blog written by two renowned scientists in the field that talk about scalable solutions to tackling the climate problem.
There are also climate focused NGOs that are publishing more and more information as the climate problem is increasingly recognized in the world. One I’d like to mention is Carbon 180. They are a US-based, climate-focused NGO that publishes a lot of technical and policy information on CDR technology.
The third are playbooks that are published by purchasers of high-quality carbon removal credits in the world today. So, companies like Stripe, Microsoft, and Shopify are probably the leaders in the field in purchasing high-quality carbon removal, which includes DAC plus mineralization. They publish their own procurement guidelines for these high-quality credits.
What advice do you have for incoming HBS students who are interested in hard tech or high capex industries?
I think in starting any high capex company, the one thing to keep in mind is to be innovative with funding. So, funding doesn’t necessarily have to be equity investment. You can source different types of funding that can feed that heavy capex. Things like non-dilutive capital, grants, that’s extremely important.
For 44.01 we are trying to innovate in the climate space, so there’s a lot more funding from governments and global institutions that is going towards developing and scaling these technologies. So, look out for grant funding programs or incubators that don’t dilute your cap table.
Another one is advanced purchases. There are companies that will front the capital to finance your projects as long as you can deliver that service in the longer term. Companies like Microsoft, Stripe, and Shopify are actually buying carbon credits in advance, therefore fronting your capital, and then you deliver your service over the next several years after you build out your project.
44.01 just secured an advance carbon removal purchase commitment from Stripe, a significant milestone through which Stripe has effectively validated our commercial model and our technology as a high-quality carbon removal offering.
If you were an animal, what animal would you be and why?
I think I’d be a cat. The reason I’d be a cat is well, first of all, they are curious and tenacious, but more importantly, they have nine lives.
The thing about being an entrepreneur is that your plan will never pan out as you planned it in the first place. You’re constantly going to have to pivot. There are going to be situations or uncertainties that are going to knock you down. You’re going to feel like the business is dead. But you have to keep picking back up, you have to keep pivoting, weather that storm, and fighting to find that success.