Utilising space tech for sustainable needs
As he hopped his foot across the surface of the moon, crunching it into the dust and debris of a place no human had ever graced before, Neil Armstrong never knew just how portentous his "one giant leap for mankind" proclamation might be. Not only because it signalled a new era in human history, an advancement of technology which reshaped the world we live in today, but also because it was space travel, and the science needed to keep people alive outside the earth’s atmosphere, which might ultimately help mankind endure.
If this all sounds a little grand, well, it is. But in fact an epic origin story is exactly how Amsterdam startup Skytree came to be. It’s unique technology, used to extract carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, was originally developed to make longer space missions possible by extracting the CO2 exhaled by astronauts in space. Now Skytree is developing and evolving that technology to use for commercial purposes – including indoor-air purification, fuel synthesis and improving plant growth in farming.
A move to Amsterdam
Photo: Skytree CEO Max Beaumont
Skytree is the brainchild of its CEO, Max Beaumont – a half welsh-half English "cultural nomad" who started developing Skytree’s unique technology while working as a systems engineer at the European Space Agency’s centre in the Dutch municipality of Noordwijk. “We knew we had the air purification technology to keep astronauts alive in the tin can which is very good at extracting CO2 and water,” Beaumont explains. “So we thought ‘what if we could apply this as a geo-engineering technology to reverse climate change’. It’s an extremely ambitious aim, but we secured the funding and that’s how we started out.”
Originally based in Noordwijk, it was after landing a place on Amsterdam’s Startupbootcamp programme that Skytree moved to the Dutch capital. “We had been thinking of moving to Amsterdam before, but when we got on the Startupbootcamp program in 2014 that’s when we made the decision to move to the city,” Beaumont explains. “Getting on the program was a game changer for us, as within a week of the demo day we had raised €160,000 of funding. Startupbootcamp trains you on a diverse set of skills like business techniques, project management and pitching. They also link you up with external experts. And then at the end of it you present to around 100-150 investors and get huge exposure.”
Amsterdam’s invaluable connectivity and access to talent
Getting on the bootcamp wasn’t the only reason Skytree chose Amsterdam as its base, eventually landing at its current premises in the city’s Science Park. “We also wanted to move to Amsterdam to be closer to investors. Amsterdam also has a great talent pool, it’s very well connected with Schiphol, and it has a great startup and investment scene. We didn’t need to be convinced to move here.”
After proving that their idea could work in the Earth’s atmosphere, Beaumont and the Skytree team spent years getting patents for their new technology and securing more funding for research and development from investors. Skytree's solution is effectively a dehumidifier and CO2 extractor in one. It helps regulate CO2 and humidity at comfortable levels keeping the air fresh and windows clear of fogging, using a specialised plastic resin which soaks up CO2 and water. Once full, the plastic cartridge is ‘regenerated’ using heat and hot air to flush out the captured CO2. This process is continuous, repeating multiple times a day until the cartridge needs replacing, which usually occurs after about one year of continuous use.
Getting ready to go to market
Self-sustainable, Skytree now has a working prototype for indoor-air purification and is working with Jaguar Land Rover along with other multinationals to help commercialise the technology for properties such as schools and hotels. “We’re able to maintain the same quality of air while it’s being recirculated in an indoor space, while it’s being rebreathed,” Beaumont explains. “By reusing the same air in this way buildings use a lot less energy as air coming in from outside doesn’t need to be conditioned – and so it reduces energy costs and operation costs for building operators. It keeps CO2 levels at safe levels as well, reducing the risk of headaches, nausea and decreased productivity.
Skytree’s current work on improving their indoor air purification technology is part of a long-term strategy that will also see the company able to create working systems that allow it to create fuel from CO2 and extract it to be used in farming. “We expect to be on the market in about one to two years, so there’s a little way to go but that’s how it is with hardware,” Beaumont explains. “The system would be about the size of a small crate for one whole building.” Skytree has made the process much less expensive and energy consuming than the original space-based system, and this is where the company’s IP has been formed.
Photo: Skytree's technology was originally developed to keep astronauts alive for longer in space
When asked about other smart and sustainable solutions to help climate change Beaumont cites the electrification of the transport sector and autonomous vehicles as new technology that can have a massive impact. “I’m really excited to see that happening,” he says. Beaumont thinks the world will come to a point when it relies on negative emission technologies (NETS) to extract CO2 from the earth’s atmosphere and help prevent climate change. “There’s a lot of uses for carbon, and if that carbon just happens to come from CO2 in the air then even better.”
When asked whether he still thinks he can change the world, Beaumont is pragmatic. “I did think that, however I have become more mature in my thinking. But the techniques that we have developed could have a massive impact on NETS technology, as we license the technology we have developed to others. So that’s exciting for me. We’ve taken the first steps, now we’ll continue to work hard and develop and see what happens.” It’s an honest answer from a businessman who’s as genuine as he is determined to make his company a success. It's also worth remembering that sometimes, huge advancements in mankind’s history have started with just a few small steps.