Growing up in rural Montana, Kendra Kuhl watched the namesake ice formations of nearby Glacier National Park shrink. “We could see global warming happening,” she says. The sight drove her professional ambitions. “I liked the idea of putting atoms together in new ways that are potentially friendly to the environment,” she says.
That’s just what Kuhl hopes to do through the startup she cofounded in 2014. Opus 12 is working on a reactor that will take the carbon dioxide emitted by power plants and make useful chemicals from it.
At Cyclotron Road, a startup incubator at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Kuhl shows off one of Opus 12’s prototypes, a small reactor with an input for carbon dioxide and an output spigot connected to an instrument that analyzes the products. The key to the technology is the design of the reactor, which incorporates a family of catalysts she collaborated on during her graduate work at Stanford University. Sandwiched inside the metal reactor chamber is an electrode that uses a membrane coated with the catalysts. They enable the carbon reactions to occur at low temperature and pressure, without requiring large amounts of energy.
Opus 12 is not the first company to work on converting carbon dioxide into widely used chemicals. But its improved catalysts and scalable reactor design set the company apart, says Kuhl. Still, the company has far to go before it can begin competing with traditional chemical suppliers. By the end of 2017, Opus 12 plans to build a reactor with a stack of electrodes that can produce several kilograms of product a day.