Tucked inside the McGovern Center, Cornell University’s startup incubator, there is a company that’s working to turn sunlight into energy, a process dubbed “artificial photosynthesis,” which plans to revolutionize fossil fuel industries throughout the country.
Dimensional Energy was founded by Cornell alumnus Jason Salfi and Cornell professors David Erickson and Tobias Hanrath in 2016, but its journey starts a couple years earlier.
In 2014, after many years of running his eco-friendly skateboard business, Comet Skateboards, Salfi stepped away to mentor in NEXUS-NY, a clean energy accelerator. Salfi coached and mentored scientists to take experiments from the lab and turn it into startups, and two of those scientists were Hanrath and Erickson. After hearing about their technology ideas, Salfi realized they had high-tech sustainability desires in common, and the three decided to turn it into their own startup – Dimensional Energy.
Erickson and Hanrath had proposed using a chemical reactor to carry out artificial photosynthesis using wave technology and a catalyst, and Dimensional Energy continued that mission, with Salfi as its CEO and Erickson and Hanrath as technical advisors.
Artificial photosynthesis, as Salfi describes, is much like the natural process plants use to convert sunlight into energy.
“If you think about what a tree or a plant does – it takes sunlight, carbon dioxide and water and creates the nutrients that it needs to grow,” Salfi said. “We do that with carbon dioxide by beaming sunlight and a catalyst onto it and then breaking that carbon dioxide molecule up so it can reform into hydrocarbons, so it’s a really similar outcome but at a much faster pace.”
Most all hydrocarbons on the planet come from fossil fuels, Salfi said, and that’s put a lot of carbon dioxide into the air and has contributed greatly to climate change. Dimensional Energy’s artificial photosynthesis takes that excess carbon dioxide and converts it into fuel.
“We can use carbon dioxide to make the very things that we need to run the society that we have today, all the plastics, the fuel, etc.,” Salfi said. “Two, we can reduce the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide so that we can start to abate some of the worst effects of climate change.”
Dimensional Energy calls its technology the HI-Light system, which is powered by a modular array of mirrors to focus sunlight into the reactors. This allows the system to be sized to any site depending on available space, desired output or CO2 availability, according to Dimensional Energy’s website.
“Operating alongside industrial facilities, HI-Light eliminates transmission or shipping costs and allows for immediate recycling of the CO2 emissions from such a facility,” according to the website.
Salfi said that Dimensional Energy envisions using its technology to produce precursors to liquid fuels on sight, which could then be transported to other locations that currently use fossil fuel feedstocks. They would instead use Dimensional Energy’s fuel as feedstock, allowing those industries to continue to produce the materials society relies on but with more eco-friendly fuel.
Dimensional Energy, a member of the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator at Binghamton University, has grown considerably in the nearly four years since its launch. Nexus-NY provided initial funding to get the company off the ground, and The Atkinson Center for Sustainable Futures at Cornell provided additional funding to build an initial 100-millimeter reactor.
The startup received a grant from the National Science Foundation in 2017 and, in 2018, secured a contract with innovation process Shell GameChanger, allowing it to scale its initial 100-millimeter reactor to the 1-meter reactor the startup is operating right now. What started as a three-person team soon grew to six and, now, 11.
“The company has matured its original vision quite a bit and scaled by a factor of 20 from an initial small reactor that we built in 2017,” Salfi said.
In December of 2019, Dimensional Energy celebrated more success after winning a $50,000 investment at the Technology Accelerator Fund (TAF) Most Valuable Pitch (MVP) CleanTech Competition held at the University at Albany. The TAF MVP competitions provide an opportunity for SUNY startups and entrepreneurial teams to compete for an investment to achieve development and commercialization milestones that enhance their probability of success, according to its website.
Salfi said none of these successes would’ve been possible without the hardworking Dimensional Energy team. And as those team members describe it, they’re just as passionate about the technology as Salfi.
Mihir Gada, process engineer, has been with Dimensional Energy for a couple years now, and he’s seen it grow significantly in that short amount of time. Through it all, Gada has believed in the work Dimensional Energy is doing.
“It’s a new concept that we are working on, … so the idea itself is very appealing to me,” Gada said. “If we were to succeed, it would be a revolutionary idea that we are able to pull off.”
Brad Brennan, director of research and development, was recruited recently to help “propel technology forward,” as he explained it. Brennan said the thing he enjoys most about Dimensional Energy is the team mentality.
“We’re a laid-back, standard startup where we all work quite a bit, but we make our own hours, and we’re able to try to have fun and work together,” Brennan said. “It’s a tight-knit group of people, and we just try to get each other motivated.”
Now, the team has set its sights on the Carbon XPRIZE, a competition run by XPRIZE, a non-profit organization that designs and manages public competitions intended to encourage technological development that could benefit humanity, according to its website.
Salfi said this challenge rewards $7.5 million to whoever can use CO2 as a feedstock collocated next to a power plant in the best, most energy-balanced way. Dimensional Energy is using its current 1-meter reactor in Wyoming to compete, and it’ll have to turn in results on June 30. If Dimensional Energy wins, Salfi said he and his team plans to use the money to scale their reactor to a 100-ton-per-year demonstration unit, allowing them to get to market even faster.
Right now, Dimensional Energy is about halfway through its journey to going to market, Salfi said, and the technology it’s developing could be a real game-changer for the industry, though it has faced its fair share of challenges.
Though Dimensional Energy’s technology can be seen as “propping up” the fossil fuel industry, Salfi said, Dimensional Energy sees it as one crucial step to combating climate change. Even if society deployed vast amounts of renewable technologies and improved efficiency, we’d still need to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to make a real change for the better, Salfi said, which involves working within the infrastructures already in place.
“The problem of climate change is too pressing to exclude the incumbents because we have a chip on our shoulder about what they may or may not have done to pollute the planet,” Salfi said. “So, what we need to do is leverage all the resources that can come to bear at the climate change problem that we have today.”
The technology is good for the planet, and the startup is good for the region, Salfi said.
“A company like Dimensional Energy can drive more economic activity in the region, leveraging existing resources and a workforce that’s been trained and willing and ready to go but maybe just doesn’t have enough to do today,” he said. “So, clean energy technologies and clean tech in general could be a real driver to the economy of central New York.”
And Salfi sees that reach only expanding as the years go on.
“Carbon utilization technologies are still young, and we are 10 years late, at least, to the party as far as atmospheric carbon dioxide reduction, and if not us, who will crop up and grow these new carbon dioxide neutralization technologies?” Salfi said. “The time is now for them, and if we don’t start developing them now, it’s just going to be way too late.”
Overall, Dimensional Energy and its team are hopeful for what the future has in store for them.
“I hope that, in the next few years, we are able to demonstrate our technology, go out in the field and use actual solar energy to run our reactors and make some useful product as a proof of our concept,” Gada said.
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