“There is no waste – only resources in the wrong place”


Sustainability, 05.04.2024

Carbon removal is an area of innovation that is rapidly moving in a positive direction. That is great news. “We have to start thinking these ideas through to the end,” said Robert Dowdall, Technical Director of Dowmann, while describing how to maintain a comprehensive perspective in a discussion with //next columnist Markus Sekulla. Dowmann takes part in the Carbon Removal ClimAccelerator programme of EIT Climate-KIC that is supported by Munich Re and ERGO.

TEam of Dowmann

Robert Dowdall (centre) with his colleagues Paul Manning (left) and Cathal Moroney (right)

Hi Robert, would you please introduce yourself? Who are you, and what does Dowmann do?

I'm Robert Dowdall, the Technical Director of Dowmann. I handle the technical aspects involved in making everything function smoothly. As for Dowmann's activities, we produce biochar and carbon removal – but that is only part of the picture. We work with various waste biomass materials, striving to separate them into their most valuable components. Through our processes, we convert the biomass into biochar, bio-oil, and even useful bio-chemicals. Additionally, we generate a lot of renewable electricity, which is supplied to the grid for societal benefit.

How many people work for you, and where are they based?

We have three individuals working for Dowmann, including myself, on a full-time basis. Additionally, we have two remote workers who assist as needed. We maintain a very lean operational structure. Geographically, our team is dispersed. I am based in Carlow, while Paul Manning, our Commercial Director, operates from Dublin. Cathal Moroney, our Financial Director, is situated in Cork. This dispersed setup has worked well for us but also contributes to reducing our own carbon footprint in a small way.

“In our view, there is no such thing as waste, just resources in the wrong place. We try to make the most out of this waste by turning it into valuable materials or new products that can help rather than harm the environment.”

Robert Dowdall, Technical Director of Dowmann

Could you describe what Dowmann does in simple words?

Biomass is the plants you see growing around us. But when these plants are harvested or become waste, they're often just left to rot without any further use or benefit. This is a real shame because biomass contains lots of useful building blocks (like LEGO) that could be cleverly reused to make even cooler stuff that society needs. That’s what Dowmann does, we separate the biomass LEGO and organize the blocks to make them more accessible for other purposes. In our view, there is no such thing as waste, just resources in the wrong place. We try to make the most out of this waste by turning it into valuable materials or new products that can help rather than harm the environment. Especially in areas where there aren't many other options or where people are facing challenges like reducing carbon emissions or finding solutions to technical problems.

Is your solution a factory or a machine, where you put in biomass? And what you get out is biochar?

Exactly, and to answer your first question: Our solution is a factory. Waste biomass is brought to that factory, where we process it using our machinery. The biomass is broken down and then separated into several different products, each with its own specific use. Yes, one of these products is biochar, which is an incredibly stable form of carbon storage and can be used to help improve degraded soils or to decarbonize concrete as an additive. Another product is a renewable oil, which can be used in heavy industrial boilers as an alternative fuel. Currently, these boilers use coal, oil, and sometimes gas. In the future, we see opportunities to further refine the oil and extract bio-chemicals. We have made significant strides towards realizing this already through incredible research, development, and demonstration support from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland.

Interestingly, each Dowmann factory can satisfy 100 percent of its energy needs and even export surplus energy to the local electricity grid. This is possible because we produce our synthesis gas and use it directly in an onsite combined heat and power system. This means each Dowmann factory comes with renewable energy built-in as standard and helps set us apart from other Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) companies. CDR can be quite energy-intensive depending on the approach. To have maximum impact, that energy also needs to come from renewable sources. The electricity grid is massively constrained and often overlooked. We see this as a significant bottleneck for scaling many CDR solutions into the future and why having our renewable energy built-in is a real advantage.

“Yes, we do need more carbon removal, but we also need to address our excessive energy consumption as a planet.”

Robert Dowdall, Technical Director of Dowmann

And could you describe the moment when you knew that the idea you had was a winner? Was it your or a collective realization that you needed to become entrepreneurs, even if it meant facing failures?

In 2017, we had a solution we knew would work, but at that time, there was no route to market. That changed in 2019 when we encountered Puro.earth, which had established a marketplace for selling carbon removal credits. This sparked our CDR journey as we realized the market was rapidly evolving. When COVID hit, we made internal changes and focused on R&D. Now, we're developing our second-generation modular system, which will allow us to scale rapidly and more efficiently.

Entrepreneurship has always been in our blood. We've founded multiple companies in the past, so this isn't our first venture. Between us, this is our fifth or sixth company. We've always had the mindset of charting our own course and making a positive impact, whether environmentally or socially. Facing failures is part of the journey of doing something new. If you are not failing, then maybe the challenge is not worth pursuing. What I think is more important is failing faster so you can rapidly get to a working solution.

Looking ahead, what's your most important milestone for 2024?

We have a couple of significant milestones lined up for 2024. The primary one is the operation of our second-generation system, which consists of one module of several components that will be combined for the larger commercial system. Once operational, it marks a crucial demonstration milestone, leading to both technical and commercial advancements. We have partnerships in place for various products, enabling industry trials that will inform our routes to market, expected to be completed and operational within the next three to six months.

The second milestone is to have our system audited and certified by a reputable auditor for carbon removal. This certification will allow us to sell our first certified ton of carbon removal. Following this, armed with solid figures, we will seek project finance for our large-scale facility. Once secured, the commissioning of the entire factory is estimated to take about six months.

Dowmann products

The volume of carbon removal that we require worldwide is 10 Gigatons per year. Where do you think we are now? Are we on an exponential upward trajectory, or is progress too slow?

Progress could certainly be faster, as there's always room for improvement. Many essential mechanisms are just beginning to take shape. For instance, the US is investing in CDR (Carbon dioxide removal), while the EU is developing frameworks like the CRCF (Carbon Removal Certification Framework). These initiatives are laying the groundwork with regulations, standards, and monitoring protocols. Once these structures are in place, I anticipate an acceleration in progress. Additionally, many CDR providers are still in the development phase or securing funds for deployment. While there's been a surge in new companies, they have yet to fully enter the market. Hence, the global supply of CDR remains relatively low.

Websites like cdr.fyi offer insights into the volume of carbon removal purchases, which, so far, have been dominated by a handful of major players, especially Microsoft. We need more purchasers willing to wait for developers to catch up because physical deployment lags behind demand due to the complexities of building physical infrastructure.

One of my favorite questions for start-up founders like yourself is: When it comes to the climate crisis, do you think the glass is half full? Or is it half empty? Can we still make it as the human community, or are we in despair mode?

I don't believe we're in despair mode, but I'd say the glass is probably twice as big as it needs to be. Yes, we do need more carbon removal, but we also need to address our excessive energy consumption as a planet. There are significant energy efficiencies to be gained simply by being smarter about our usage. For instance, commercial buildings often leave lights on unnecessarily after hours, which is just one example of many small changes that can add up over time.

What would be other smart changes?

The key is that we make smarter decisions about the types of energy we use. Increasing the share of renewables on the grid is crucial, and this transition is already underway. While the glass may seem full now, we could probably live just as comfortably with a smaller glass. This would make it easier for CDR companies to fill the gap removing surplus emissions using excess electricity. Despite the current assumptions about abundant energy, there's vast potential for efficiency improvements, especially in transportation. Building better infrastructure for more efficient public transportation could significantly reduce energy consumption. Human behavior can change faster than infrastructure can be delivered.

We have the technology and expertise to make these changes; what we need is the ambition and will to act. There are plenty of smart engineers and technical experts ready to tackle these challenges if provided with the right environment and incentives.

Thanks, Robert, for your time and the effort for our planet!

Markus Sekulla

Author: Markus Sekulla

Hi, I'm Markus. I'm a freelance management consultant in the field of creative/digital communication. In my free and working time, which is not always clear-cut, I like to focus on new work, trends, gadgets and sustainable iedas. In my real free time, I'm quite a health freak: eat, run, sleep, repeat.

Markus Sekulla on LinkedIn

Further Readings

What is the Carbon Removal ClimAccelerator?

Interview with Strategic Programmes Builder Carla Erber (EIT Climate-KIC) 

PLENO: Streamlining carbon removal projects 

Interview with PLENO Co-Founder Nura Linggih 

NEG8 Carbon: Rapid scaling key to carbon removal

Interview with Chief Commercial Officer Dr. Adrian Costigan

Blue Carbon Tanzania: Restoring a part of the planet’s lungs

Interview with Debora Benjamen, the CEO and co-founder

Point2Hectare: Next gen fertilizer

Interview with Max Billinger, CEO and co-founder

ClimeRock: Making Earth Cooler Using Rocks

Interview with the founders Antoine Davy and Arthur Chabot

RubisCO2: Turning Algae into Natural Resources

Interview with Pablo Navarro Maldonado, CEO

Your opinion
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