Arca removes carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, one mine at a time
The climatetech startup is figuring out how to both create a company and create a market for its product.
Arca team members show some of the instrumentation they use to monitor carbon mineralization rates in mine tailings. Photo: Arca at the Taku River Tlingit First Nation
As a professor of geological sciences at UBC, Greg Dipple had been studying rocks for a few decades. But it wasn’t until a sabbatical in 2000 that he first came across a unique method of capturing and storing carbon dioxide: rocks. His brief period of time at Los Alamos National Laboratory kickstarted a new avenue of research for Dipple’s lab, one that has spun out two decades later as a climatetech venture — first known as Carbin Minerals, and today recognized as Arca.
Capturing and storing carbon dioxide in rocks
The most well-known natural method of capturing and storing carbon dioxide is through photosynthesis, where plants use the sun’s energy to take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen in return. Although rocks don’t photosynthesize, there exists a similar process of carbon capture, known as mineral carbonation or carbon mineralization, which allows certain types of rock to react, capture, and permanently store carbon dioxide.
The physicists and chemists Dipple studied with at Los Alamos were researching this process through the mining and processing of ultramafic rock — a type of igneous rock formed from cooling of lava. The scientists were trying to figure out how this mined ultramafic rock could store carbon dioxide through the use of large chemical reactors.
Greg Dipple, co-founder and head of science at Arca. Photo: LinkedIn
“I went and spent some time with them during the sabbatical to further understand the process,” said Dipple. “I had studied similar processes under purely geologic conditions as part of my previous research.”
When Dipple returned to Canada from his sabbatical to explore what carbon mineralization could look like in B.C., he found that there wasn’t even a need to mine ultramafic rock. There was already 3 billion tonnes of ultramafic rock sitting on the ground as mine waste.
“I decided, as a sort of an exploratory research stream, to just start visiting some of those mine sites and characterizing the materials,” Dipple said. “What I found at each of the sites that I visited was that [the ultramafic rock] were already carbonating on their own.”
It was a discovery that surprised Dipple — that existing mine sites had this specific type of rock already capturing and storing carbon. He went on to study not only how and why it was happening, but why it took place at a relatively modest scale. This research would eventually form the foundations of Arca.
“By understanding what was limiting the rates of those [carbon mineralization] reactions, that then informed this whole pathway of how to accelerate it,” said Dipple, “so that it happens at a scale that can be significant in the context of greenhouse gas emissions of an individual mine, and ultimately, significant at the scale of the global scale of greenhouse gas emissions.”
Mines as carbon sinks
Arca uses a portfolio of technologies to accelerate carbon mineralization at mines. When a mineral of interest, such as gold or copper, is mined, it inevitably leaves behind by-product materials such as water and other rock. These settings are known as mine tailings, and the tailings with ultramafic rock are where Arca operates.
“Even within the family of ultramafic [rock], there's still a lot of mineralogical diversity,” said Dipple. “Some subsets have mineral character that's highly reactive to carbon dioxide, and so our first technology really works on those sites. The follow-on technologies really help to activate other kinds of ultramafic minerals, so that it can operate on a larger scale.”
Dipple first tried commercializing this technology around 2007, but it was too early, he said — particularly with the subsequent economic crash in 2008. In the years that followed, thanks to government funding, Dipple was able to pursue laboratory research to better understand the process of carbon mineralization.
Eventually, in 2016, interest from the mining industry picked up, along with curiosity from the cleantech ecosystem. This was followed by developments in public policy which began to bring carbon dioxide removal to greater public consciousness, stemming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
“I got pulled into a lot of dinners and meetings with people after that [US National Academy] report came out,” said Dipple. It eventually led him to co-found Arca with two members from his UBC lab in 2021 — Bethany Ladd, now head of operations, and Peter Scheuermann, now head of technology. Dipple remains as head of science.
Left, Bethany Ladd, head of operations; right, Peter Scheuermann, head of technology. Photo: LinkedIn
Scaling up the market
A large challenge behind scaling up Arca’s carbon mineralization technology is the need to scale up the carbon removals market to go along with it, said Sean Lowrie, head of external affairs at Arca. While there exists scientific consensus around the need to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also remove them, our economies still have a ways to go in bolstering the technology required to do so.
“A market is the only way really to scale carbon dioxide removal sufficiently,” said Lowrie. “So,how do you create a new market from scratch in a short amount of time? It has to be ready to pull 10 billion [giga]tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year by 2050.”
Arca has been well-recognized within the budding industry.The company won the Elon Musk-funded XPrize in 2022, receiving $1 million in funding (UBC remains the only university in the world with two spinoffs as winners of the XPrize, with agtech company Takachar also taking home $1 million from the student competition). It’s also received significant equity investment from venture capital firms and family offices, including Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital.
“They're doing it at high risk with very, very long timelines — being very patient, and very much aligned with sort of the long term goals and the final outputs,” said Dipple.
But perhaps most notable of recent is commitment from Frontier — a conglomerate of large tech companies, consultancies, and financial firms such as Alphabet, McKinsey, and JP Morgan. These institutions have collectively committed to buy an initial amount of over USD $1 billion of permanent carbon removal between 2022 and 2030. Arca is among the suite of investees.
“They're using something called advanced market commitments, which is a tool that was used in malaria vaccines, where companies buy at costs and prices that include the R&D costs,” said Lowrie. “These companies are trying to create this new market.”
Both Lowrie and Dipple attribute these first-movers as essential to the scale-up of the technology. Companies like Shopify and Microsoft with robust net-zero commitments recognized that in order to reach those goals, emissions removals were just as necessary as emissions reductions. Yet it’s not the be-all, end-all solution to our climate woes, warns Lowrie.
“80 percent of the effort should be on reducing emissions, 20 percent on creating this new industry,” said Lowrie. “We're not creating this industry to allow continued emissions. We're not building a recycling process so that we can continue to burn fossil fuels. We're trying to restore the atmosphere.”
A national opportunity
There’s a lot of local pride to go around at Arca. It’s part of the reason why the company’s rooted in Vancouver. Itsts world headquarters are due to open in Mount Pleasant at the end of the month.
Zooming out from Vancouver but staying in Canada, one of its first investors was Shopify in 2022, through the company’s Sustainability Fund. Arca is also proudly an alumnus of entrepreneurship@UBC. But even beyond this, Lowrie and Dipple see potential of carbon dioxide removals for B.C. and the rest of Canada from both the economic and policy perspectives.
“Carbon dioxide removal isn't broadly understood in Canada yet,” said Lowrie. “I think a lot of the provincial and federal efforts are around carbon capture, use, and storage, which is where the emissions are still occurring. They're just reducing the amount that's going into the atmosphere.”
“We're an entirely different thing,” said Lowrie. “We're repairing the Earth, restoring the Earth, rather than reducing the damage that ongoing emissions are creating.”