the Parisian startup that seduced Elon Musk with its decarbonization process

Selected from more than 1,000 applications, the young Parisian company NetZero has just pocketed one of the fifteen one-million-dollar grants awarded by the Elon Musk Foundation as part of a competition devoted to CO capture projects.2. It has developed a process for the production of biochar, a soil amendment, based on carbon, resulting from the pyrolysis of agricultural waste.

As the IPCC pointed out in its latest report, reducing CO2 will no longer be enough to sustainably limit global warming. Atmospheric carbon capture solutions must also be implemented.

The purpose of the competition launched by the Elon Musk Foundation is to select and financially support startups that develop innovative and promising processes in this field. It has just designated 15 winners, including the French startup NetZero, who each received an envelope of one million dollars as encouragement. And in 2025, the 3 most promising solutions will still be able to share a grant of 100 million.

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Long-term atmospheric carbon sequestration

the biochar is used by growers to improve the quality of soils, and therefore their productivity; but it can also contribute to the fight against global warming as a solution for the long-term sequestration of atmospheric carbon in soils.

The production of biochar is obtained from organic materials by a process called pyrolysis. It is a thermochemical reaction during which this material is heated to high temperature, in the absence of oxygen. It should be noted that the heat resulting from the process can also be recovered by producing, for example, electricity.

NetZero uses agricultural residues produced in tropical regions, such as coffee and cocoa pods and shells, coconut shells, peanut or cashew nut shells, palm stalks, etc. Usually, this waste is either burned or sent to landfill where it rots releasing CO2 in the air.

The main chemical component of biochar is carbon. It was originally captured by plants in the atmosphere during photosynthesis. During the pyrolysis process, it is extracted in the form of a powdery, black and solid material. If it is buried in the soil, this carbon will be stabilized by remaining trapped there for hundreds of years. As understood, biochar production is an inexpensive, but also useful, long-term carbon removal solution.

According to the IPCC, biochar production solutions, if deployed globally, could extract up to 2 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.2 every year.

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A first unit launched in Cameroon

NetZero currently has a handful of employees. It was co-founded by Aimé Njiakin, a Cameroonian entrepreneur active in particular in coffee production, the French Axel Reinaud, a former Boston Consulting Group, as well as the paleoclimatologist Jean Jouzel, an emblematic figure in the fight against climate change.

The startup’s project is to deploy large-scale biochar production in tropical regions. Its economic model is based in particular on the sale of carbon credits to large companies.

At COP26 held in Glasgow in November 2021, NetZero announced the launch of a first unit at Nkongsamba in Cameroon. The location neighbors a coffee processing factory owned by Aimé Njiakin. ” HASith its 10,000 tons of annual processing capacity, this small 500 m² plant is the right size to collect agricultural waste in a nearby area and to return the soil amendment to the farmers who will have provided the raw material.”, explains Axel Reinaud.
The young company is preparing to open a new factory in Brazil “very soon”, it said in a press release.

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