A Q&A with Julia of Vaulted Deep

By: Collaborative Team

Permanent carbon removal and storage continues to be at the forefront of decarbonization efforts. The Shared Future Fund boasts a portfolio of approaches across ocean solutions, direct air capture, point-source and bioenergy and biomass removal methods. However, what gets us really excited is when carbon removal goes beyond removing CO2 to offer a ton of other co-benefits to help push the world forward.

Co-founded by Julia Reichelstein, Vaulted Deep is on a mission to remove carbon, avoid methane emissions, improve environmental and human health, and advance environmental justice in one fell swoop. The best part? The tech is proven, having been used in hundreds of installations worldwide in the oil and gas industry for decades. Not to mention, Vaulted’s methodology is safe, regulated, and leads with MRV by design.

Fresh off the heels of their delivery announcement, we sat down with Julia to discuss how and why their technology stands out from the pack and where innovation within the carbon removal industry is still needed.

Can you share more about why your technology is superior to other methods of carbon removal?

Let’s zoom way out. At the highest level, when we think about durable carbon removal (CDR), we’re all trying innovative ways of doing three key things: 1) capturing carbon from the atmosphere, 2) processing the carbon into a form it can be stored durably in, and 3) sequestering the carbon somewhere so it’s stored for 10,000+ years. Personally, I love the sheer amount of creativity I’ve seen from our peers in the space – finding unique combinations to piece the components together. I’ve always liked the idea of starting backwards – where’s the best durable storage place for gigatons of carbon?

Deep geologic storage stands out because there’s quite a bit of space down there, and generally speaking storage is highly durable on the time scale of thousands - if not millions - of years. The issue with geologic storage is that it’s relatively hard to do. Nearly all geologic injections are with pure gases (or pure liquids) that are easier to inject because they have uniform particle sizes (i.e. making them less likely to plug your injection well).

But getting CO2 into a pure gas or a pure liquid is hard and expensive. You either need to pull CO2 out of the ambient air with big fans (Direct Air Capture) and then compress it and dissolve it into a liquid (essentially making fizzy water), or you can let plants pull it out of the air (photosynthesis) and then use some sort of processing like pyrolysis or hydrothermal liquefaction to transform the biomass into an injectable liquid. Both approaches today cost upwards of $600/ton.

Vaulted’s approach is unique because it hinges on our core slurry injection technology, which allows us to take solids (a slurry is a solids-laden liquid) and do the deep-well geologic injection. It was developed by the company we spun out of, Advantek Waste Management Services, who commercialized it originally for the oilfield waste industry. It may sound like a niche technology, but what it unlocks is the ability to take carbon in much less processed (read: cheaper) forms. We can utilize carbon captured by plants, used in the economy, and then ended up as sludgy, aggregated, organic waste.

Today, those wastes flow back out into local environments, where they’re dumped in landfills or waterways, incinerated, or spread on land to decompose – re-releasing the captured carbon back into the atmosphere. With our slurry injection technology, we can take those wastes and inject them deep underground, permanently removing the carbon from the atmosphere unlocking scalable, measurable, relatively low-cost CDR.

Our approach has real benefits beyond the carbon removal itself. When we take the wastes and sequester them, we not only remove CO2 but we avoid all those methane emissions (which we don’t credit for). These sludgy, moisture-intensive wastes can also be contaminated with pathogens and PFAS in biosolids, hormones in manure, or chemicals in paper sludge. Today, when the wastes get spread on land for disposal, all those contaminants flow back into local communities’ groundwater. This poses ecological and human health issues. In the US and globally, we dispose of most waste near marginalized communities – generally poor and of color. By diverting these contaminated wastes from flowing back out into local communities, Vaulted helps improve local community and environmental health, while advancing environmental justice.

Given all of the momentum in the carbon removal field, where do you still see that innovation is needed?

In 2020, I started my carbon removal journey as an investor at Piva Capital, a $500M climate and deep tech fund, right when carbon removal was really taking off. As a VC, you get to see the landscape from a bird’s eye view, and I was astounded by the amount of innovation coming from new CDR suppliers. Seemingly from out of nowhere (because the market for permanent CDR barely existed before 2020), there were all these new companies figuring out how to capture, process, and store carbon in creative different combinations.

All that CDR innovation was critical – translating to more shots on goal for solutions that can get to gigaton scale. But I think we’re quickly realizing we now need a lot more innovation (and resources) behind helping the backbone of the industry itself mature so those suppliers can actually scale up.

What we’ve learned being “born a teenager” - aka being a spin-off with mature technology and a permitted, operating at-scale facility – is that the CDR industry infrastructure is in its infancy. The industry is so new that critical infrastructure is still being built, and sometimes we’re going to be leading the way in building it.

Even basic things like, how does a CDR auditing process flow smoothly and frequently? When and how do we recognize CDR revenue as suppliers? What does high quality and trustworthy MRV really look like? Who should hold the liability if things get off track? Who’s going to help finance the next 10 FOAKs (First of a Kinds)?

I’d love to see more innovation and regulation building out the critical infrastructure the industry needs to be able to meet the annual 5-10 gigaton of CDR per year scale necessary by 2050. Right now, we’re at roughly 25k tons of permanent CDR delivered as an entire industry, ever. That means we need a 200,000x scale up in less than 30 years…

If you could wave a magic wand, what needs to change or be improved within regulation to really catalyze the carbon removal space?

There are so many ways to go…

• Not all carbon removal is regulated, which is a fairly large issue for the space. While innovation can carry us to great new ideas, we need all CDR to be regulated for the industry to be able to not only grow, but gain widespread trust and grow safely. Thankfully, Vaulted is in a relatively good position, as our carbon removal utilizes Class V wells, fully regulated by the EPA.

• Permitting, permitting, permitting… it’s been said before, but it’s so key. We need permitting timelines to keep pace with the urgency of the problem we’re trying to solve. It will be near impossible to meet our climate needs in time at the current the global pace of permitting new facilities and new well sites. Here in the U.S., some state regulators are really innovative and understand the urgency of the problem –like Kansas (KDHE), for example, where one of our wells is.

• I’d love to see 45Q expanded to be tech agnostic, covering all types of high quality, permanent CDR. On the demand-side, we saw some initial traction with the DOE’s direct purchase prize, but a lot more direct government purchasing, and compliance market integration is needed for CDR to scale to 5GT annually.