Catalytic Innovations’ reactor

Alcohol, perfume and other ethanol-based products could become a vehicle to fight climate change, if Catalytic Innovations has anything to do with it.

The Adamsville, Rhode Island-based startup has developed a proprietary catalyst and reactor design that turns air, sunlight and water into a pure ethanol product that can be used in consumer products.

While scientists have been working with this reaction for decades, said founder Stafford Sheehan, Catalytic Innovations’ methods are far more efficient, creating a product that is cleaner and can be scaled to large markets.

“We’re almost as efficient as you can get from a thermodynamic standpoint,” he said. “We’re almost at the maximum you can be without cheating the laws of nature.”

Plus, the product is net carbon negative over its life cycle, Sheehan said, taking 10 gallons of carbon dioxide out of the air for each liter of ethanol produced.

With this innovation, he has his sights set on a bigger goal: “What we’re trying to with this project is stop climate change.”

Sheehan shared his vision for Catalytic Innovations at the Hello Tomorrow conference for deep tech startups in Paris, France, this October, where the startup was competing in the environment track. While the startup didn’t walk away with the top prize, it has been garnering attention in the sustainability world: It was named a top 10 startup in MassChallenge Israel this summer, won a UNECE Ideas4Change startup award last spring and Sheehan, who received his PhD from Yale University, was named to Forbes 30 under 30 energy list in 2016.

But Catalytic Innovations is still in its early stages. The startup owns patents on their catalyst and reactor design, but they’re currently using a prototype model which can only produce a few liters of their ethanol product per day. They’re currently fundraising, and aim to build a scaled up version of their proprietary reactor in 2018, which would increase their output from one liter per day to 1,500 liters per month. The five-person team will also focus on product development, improving the quality of the ethanol, in the upcoming year.

The startup is set up as a B2B model, selling liters of product to B2C companies. Currently Catalytic Innovations has two clients signed on, a spirits company and a perfume manufacturer.

While fuel seems like the obvious market for their product, Sheehan said it is easier to get a food in the door in consumer markets, given the competitiveness of fuel industry incumbents.

“The technology needs to be scaled and proven in more accessible markets,” Sheehan said. “The hope is fuels one day in the future.”

And if that happens, he is confident that the environmental impact could be significant.

“If our process is adopted in a lot of large-scale markets, like fuel for example, we could actually reduce all of mankind’s carbon dioxide emissions by 7 to 10 percent,” Sheehan estimated. “So we could make a huge dent in what humanity is doing to our environment.”