When people talk about climate change, they usually focus on behavior change, clean electricity, driving electric cars and using wind and solar power. But Compact Membrane Systems (CMS) CEO Erica Nemser focuses on carbon capture — reducing emissions from the production of things that we want and need: steel for buildings; plastic production for cars, buildings, and medical equipment; and cement for roads.
A pioneer in separations technology, New Castle-based CMS has launched a long-awaited pilot demonstration of its proprietary Optiperm membrane technology at Braskem’s Marcus Hook petrochemicals facility, laying the groundwork for broader application of its low-cost carbon-capture technology.
“I tell people I work in the planet-friendly, sustainable chemistry space,” Nemser says. “It’s really difficult to move production of the things we depend on every day to clean electricity, so we’re capturing the CO2 (carbon dioxide) produced from those processes before it leaves the smokestack. We’re concentrating that CO2 so that it can be used or sequestered underground, leading to more products and fewer emissions.”
“I don’t think anyone really wants a solution where we have to say no to steel and cement and some of the things that enable us to live the kind of lives we live and develop the medicines and the healthcare and other materials that we use,” she says.
That’s her pitch to the layman, but when Nemser talks to prospective investors or users of her carbon-capturing membranes, they understand the benefits for hard-to-abate industries but want to know what makes CMS special.
The company’s Optiperm technology uses membranes to separate the gases used to create plastics (olefins) from fuels (paraffins). Industry journals have described CMS’s efforts to develop membranes with commercial applications as a process improvement that could “change the world [and] reap great global benefits” through heightened energy efficiency.
Nemser says CMS is a leader in offering membrane technologies for carbon capture.
“There’s an existing commercial technology for carbon capture now; it’s just expensive and difficult to use in a range of applications,” she says. “Many new developments are still [in the lab] and face many technology risks. We’re far, far ahead of those. We believe Optiperm offers benefits from a cost and ease-of-use standpoint and can address the needs of customers that want a carbon capture system — steam methane reformers, plants making blue hydrogen, and steel plants and cement plants.
“At the end of the day, keeping the cost low is important because the CO2 is essentially an emission stream that nobody wants, so they want to do it as inexpensively as possible. We can make applications of all sizes under their operating conditions. Others in our business can’t say that.”
Nemser says CMS has two customers — manufacturing plants…and the planet. Optiperm will help manufacturers meet goals tied to the Paris accords (and others) to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and reduce their CO2 footprint over different timelines ranging from 2025 to 2050. Other prospective partners already have underground carbon-capture facilities and need partners like CMS to serve those customers at a more reasonable price.
As for the planet, she says “every molecule of CO2 that we take out of a smokestack and avoid going into the environment is a net gain.”
The Optiperm project with Braskem is the largest demonstration yet of its membrane doing a separation. A scaled-down version of the commercial system that CMS can deliver today, it’s a 500-day project that is already generating data that has the CMS team excited about hitting all its goals.
“We’ll get a lot of data over the next 18 months or so, but we believe we’ll be able to prove what our technology can offer well before that,” Nemser says. “This is not a science project confined to a lab. It’s a significant technology validation and proof point for investors and partners. We’ll be showing them this technology works at a commercial scale and will remove megatons of carbon from the environment.”
The primary metric that determines success is the cost of capture on a per-ton basis.
“The world expects us to be able to capture at least 90% of the CO2 that’s being emitted in a stream and get it to a 95% concentration. We can do that, and we use those as our benchmarks for performance,” she says.
The next step is putting more demonstrations into the field. Nemser remains tight-lipped about timing and locations beyond saying Optiperm can be quickly deployed anywhere.
“We’re looking at a range of different applications in different industries, with the common denominator being that they all have flue gas streams,” she says. “Think of it like the furnace system in your house with a flue that releases the CO2 nitrogen mix out into the atmosphere.”
Nemser says Delaware is an excellent place for scientific research and development.
“We’re doing cutting-edge work in climate technology,” she says. “Delaware’s history in chemicals has created a baseline and core competency. We’ve seen the evolution to clean chemicals, and now we’re seeing chemicals as energy, hydrogen fuels, solar power, electrolysis, and a variety of other chemical-based technologies. Delaware has a lot to contribute to the future of chemistry being the future of energy and clean energy, and the talent here is second to none in developing this.”
When Nemser joined the company her father Stuart founded in 1993 after leaving DuPont, she started moving it from a domestic science-driven R&D lab to a global commercial organization that constantly generates new intellectual property.
“I thought [our future] would be in petrochemicals and then broadly in industry and carbon capture but probably 10 years later than we’re seeing now,” she says. “In many ways, we see an acceleration in the interest in carbon capture.”
Her father, Nemser says, “thinks it’s amazing that membranes are having their day in the sun. Dad’s vision was always that technologists needed to find a way to stop separations from being one of the largest energy hogs on the planet as they produce the products that we want and prevent them from creating the emissions profile that they now have.”
Nemser says that modular systems like the CMS membrane can be used in both large plants like you see dotting the American landscape as well as new greenfield applications, and even small installations as the world moves towards more decentralized processes and plants.
Nemser says she’s proud of what CMS has accomplished but concedes she always says, ‘let’s do it faster.’ I’m always looking ahead, not behind, at the next mountain to climb.”
“It’s one thing to prove it out in a chemical plant, but the whole point is how do we expand these use cases so that we’re really talking about the next generation of deployments in carbon capture,” she says.
Nemser says Braskem is only the launching point, adding it makes sense that a Delaware company is at the brink of innovation like this.
“The future of chemicals is energy and a clean planet,” she says. “It’s not where we were. It’s where we’re going.”