Interview With Ebb Carbon Founder Ben Tarbell

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Benjamin Schulz: When did you create Ebb Carbon, and what’s the story behind it? What was your initial motivation to create Ebb Carbon? 

Ben Tarbell: We started about a year ago in February 2021, and our company stems from the broader area of research of Matt Eisaman, Ebb Carbon’s Chief Technology Officer and one of our co-founders. He spent the last decade researching the ocean carbonate system and the role it plays in helping the ocean absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. Matt and I met at Google X, where I was leading a team commercializing climate technologies and Matt was a science advisor.

Recently, Matt won a grant from the Grantham Foundation to commercialize some of the work coming out of his lab, which was the inspiration for Ebb Carbon. When Matt got in contact with me,  I put him in touch with our other two co-founders, Dave and Todd, who I’ve also worked with in the past. They started helping him with some of the work on the grant, and then, six months later, we founded the company.

Ebb Carbon

Benjamin Schulz: Our readers have often hear about Google X — how big is that organization? It always sounds a little bit mysterious and exciting. Since you worked there, can you say a few words to shed some light on it? 

Ben Tarbell: Google X is intentionally secretive — it’s designed to be a place where smart people can work on important problems facing the world without the scrutiny and distractions that come with all of the interest that normally surrounds these kinds of endeavors.

Benjamin Schulz: And back to Ebb Carbon, if you could go back to the founding of the company, is there anything you would do differently today — any suggestions to other carbon tech founders starting today?

Ben Tarbell: We’re still so early in our journey — we don’t yet have the benefit of time and retrospection. But one thing I would say is that for most of my career in climate tech, there’s been this tenet that you had to find something of value to sell besides carbon. For most of the time I’ve been doing this, you could never raise money or have a serious business model that was only reducing carbon dioxide — either emissions reduction or pulling it from the atmosphere.

What has emerged recently is this exciting new voluntary carbon removal market — there’s suddenly a price for carbon and so there are business models that can thrive just on the carbon market alone. If I were to offer anything to potential founders thinking about starting a business in this space it would be two words — don’t hesitate. This market is growing quickly and my view is that it will be strong for some time to come. There’s lots of signs of growth and lots of signs of demand exceeding supply for the foreseeable future. That’s an exciting environment to start a business in.

Benjamin Schulz: Could you explain the Ebb Carbon service or product to our readers and how it might be different from other services that are, on the surface, similar?

Ben Tarbell: Ebb Carbon sells the service of removing and storing carbon dioxide from the air. We store this carbon dioxide in the ocean’s natural permanent solution for carbon storage called bicarbonate, significantly accelerating a naturally occurring process that takes place over thousands of years. But while we do it, we also reduce ocean acidification. Bicarbonate is safe, stable, and naturally abundant in the ocean — it’s by far the largest form of carbon storage in the biosphere.

The way Ebb Carbon’s technology works is that our system intercepts salt water flows from industrial facilities that process sea water, like desalination plants. Using our proprietary electrochemical system, we pull acid out of the brine flow and we can sell that acid as a low cost, low carbon replacement for existing commodity acid in industrial markets. When we return the slightly alkaline sea water to the ocean, it reacts with CO2 from the air to form bicarbonate without increasing the ocean’s acidity, and in fact, actually decreasing acidification.

Once the carbon dioxide is converted to bicarbonate, it’s stable for more than 10,000 years, so it’s virtually permanent from the perspective of carbon storage.

Ebb differs from other methods of carbon dioxide removal and sequestration because we use less energy than other methods and so our costs are low. We expect a price of less than $100 per ton in less than five years, and there’s a pathway to $50. Also, we deliver on many other attributes that matter to the emerging carbon markets. We have over 10,000 years of permanence, a pathway to verification, and 100% additionality — meaning that there’s no reason anybody is doing this other than to remove carbon from the atmosphere.  We also have the benefit of reducing ocean acidity.

There’s number of other additional market tailwinds that are helping drive Ebb Carbon’s business forward. As we’ve discussed, the first is the voluntary carbon removal market which is growing quickly, especially for the high-quality credits, where there is a high degree of permanence and additionality. So much so, that we’re seeing for the foreseeable future that demand exceeds supply in that segment.

Second, most of our cost is energy, and so because our capital expense is low, we are able to operate the Ebb system flexibly. But because of that, we’re able to benefit from the declining cost of wind and solar energy as that industry advances and expands.

Third, like PV solar cells, which is the industry that I’ve spent most of my career in, but also EV batteries, the membranes in our system will scale and improve through factory manufacturing. So we can install small scale systems profitably today that will then essentially provide scale and learning for future improvements and cost reductions. There’s a well-honed pattern that we’ve seen with other technologies that scale in this way — and this is something we intend to accentuate as a pathway to scale cost reduction and technical improvements.

Benjamin Schulz: Are there any other byproducts like heat or used membranes that you have to take care of, especially once it is at a larger scale?

Ben Tarbell: We don’t heat the water in any appreciable way. Our co-product is the acid that we’re pumping out of the ocean. But it’s essentially a zero cost, zero carbon form of acid, and this can be used to displace existing uses of acid that have a carbon footprint, and so there’s a number of additional potential benefits that that our acid stream can deliver.

Certainly the membranes wear out, but they are quite durable and the replacement cycle is on the order of many years. The amount of material in these membranes is very small, so it’s not a significant amount of material or impact.

Benjamin Schulz: And for broad understanding, who is buying such an acid right now? 

Ben Tarbell: Today it’s the chemical industries, but there’s a long list of buyers. Hydrochloric acid is a commodity used widely across a variety of industries like food processing, agriculture, and more efficient extraction of minerals in mines. There are a number of really interesting potential future use cases around different types of mining systems. As an example, in mining there’s often a waste stream that has valuable ore in it, but it’s not cost effective to extract that ore. The materials found in that ore are crucial to technologies we need to build decarbonizing technologies like electric vehicles and renewable energy generation, and hydrochloric acid can help us extract more out of what’s seen today to be “waste.”

But there’s a long list of other things you could do. If you started with the premise of zero cost, zero carbon acid, there’s a bunch of climate-positive pathways to developing new uses that can scale on the order of many gigatons that are quite interesting to develop.

Benjamin Schulz: Speaking about the Ebb Carbon vision, where do you think or where do you hope the company is in 3 or 5 years? Which different metrics are important to you?

Ben Tarbell: We’re deploying the first Ebb Carbon system this year and it will deliver carbon removal services to our first customer, Stripe. Our first system will be rated at a capacity of a couple of hundred tons per year of CO2 removal.

Over the next few years, we’ll deploy dozens of similar factory-produced systems which will enable us to continually improve the efficiency and the cost of our technology.

In around five years, we’ll be deploying at the megaton scale through partnerships with industrial brine suppliers, desalination plants, and industrial buyers of commodity acid that will benefit from the low cost of carbon acid that we can produce.

Benjamin Schulz: What do you think you would aspire to do personally if you weren’t one of the main people at Ebb Carbon? 

Ben Tarbell: Everything I’ve done in my career has been at this intersection of environment and technology. For the last 15 years, this work has been focused on climate. Mostly it was startups in the solar industry, but more recently, at Google X, where I led the portfolio of climate tech projects, but also through various investing roles in between.

If I could find a better way of accelerating solutions to climate change than Ebb provides, I would be working on it!  My retirement plans presume that we’ve solved climate change first, so the clock is ticking on both sides — both for my retirement and climate change.

Benjamin Schulz: What are the important things for Ebb Carbon to reduce the cost of carbon removal production? Is it around the membranes? Is it the energy? How can people think about the cost curve?

Ben Tarbell: As I was saying, we expect a price below $100 per ton in less than five years, and we’re working on a number of ways that could potentially reduce it below $50 per ton thereafter.

Ebb’s CapEx improvements are relatively straightforward to achieve, as there’s a well-honed pathway to automation, part reduction and improving a lifetime of components from other fast growing, modular-design industries like solar PV and electric vehicles which Ebb can draw on. This is really mostly engineering work, and that’s very well understood. As we scale the volume of this industry, there’s a very straightforward pathway to significant cost reduction.

On the OpEx side, energy is the main cost of Ebb’s technology. However, there’s a trade-off in the energy costs around the metrics that matter — which are the carbon intensity of the energy, the price of the energy, and then the capacity of the energy (or the amount of time that the system is operating). As Ebb’s technology has a relatively low CapEx, we can afford to not operate 100% of the time and so we will be able to essentially chase the declining cost curve of intermittent renewables like wind and solar by operating in a capacity that meets the lowest cost portion of that curve.

The other lever we’re working on is energy efficiency. In addition to reducing energy cost, we are also working towards using less energy, and so there’s a number of things we’re working on that will drive down energy use and drive up efficiency over time.

Benjamin Schulz: In your opinion, what are some of the very overlooked opportunities in clean tech and climate? 

Ben Tarbell: I think, in general, harnessing the ocean is a big one. I spent a number of years working with a talented team at an investment firm focused on the intersection of oceans and climate. Ebb Carbon is one example of this, but there are many opportunities to work with the ocean to benefit climate and humanity. The ocean is the unsung hero of climate change and it’s been pushed to its limits for millions of years; the ocean has been naturally soaking up excess atmospheric carbon dioxide, but the recent rise in rate of emissions, literally gigatons of CO2 have dissolved in the ocean and made it more acidic and jeopardizing marine life. To some degree, we have both an obligation but an opportunity here to help the ocean by aiding its ability to sequester CO2 and clean up some of the damage that humanity has caused it through carbon emissions and warming.

Benjamin Schulz: If you had one policy you could enact, in the US or globally, what policy would come to your mind? 

Ben Tarbell: I think we should price the externality of carbon by putting a rational price on it while ensuring the burden of that price is not disproportionately on the shoulders of people who can’t afford it.  A price signal would go a long way in motivating entrepreneurs to do what needs to be done to take the risk to build the technologies that will solve this problem.

But unfortunately, we have the opposite in many policies today. We have lots of subsidies for emissions, and while there are sometimes reasons for these, there are other factors at play.

And even better would be a revenue-neutral carbon price, which is where revenues gathered are either distributed across technologies that remove carbon to incentivize their development and deployment, or towards helping those who are least able to afford to pay extra. I think that would go a long way.

Benjamin Schulz: Are there any organizations or people in climate or otherwise that are a particular motivation to you?

Ben Tarbell: I spent most of my career in the solar industry, and I, to some degree, arrived at the time right when the industry was starting its launch into the growth and success that we’ve seen commercially recently. But there are many unsung heroes that built the technology and built the policies that enabled that, and many of us benefited from their hard work. I really admire the passionate scientists in the national labs and the people who started companies in solar in the 80s when it wasn’t obvious that there was a lot of money to be made in it. These are the people who built the foundations of what became a scalable industry starting in the early 2000s. They are emblematic of the people who really inspire me — the people who are driven to solve a problem and not necessarily driven by fame or money.

Benjamin Schulz: That’s a wonderful notion, the unsung heroes of solar and wind. There are many and they ultimately, in a way, succeeded. 

Ben Tarbell: Yes, and many of them did not see the fruits of their labors, even though their technology and policies succeeded, and continue to.

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Benjamin Schulz

I'm investing in positive companies and am passionate about climate action and long-term human challenges. Early partner at BEAM (United People of Climate Action) and CleanTechnica (#1 cleantech-focused new & analysis website in the world), among others.

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