Liquid Light is a very-early-stage, venture-backed green chemical company focused specifically on the conversion of carbon dioxide to fuels and industrial chemicals.
“The term is ‘artificial photosynthesis,’” says Kyle Teamey, COO of Liquid Light, based at Princeton Corporate Plaza. “Doing what a plant does, but doing it with a totally inorganic system.”
The technology that Liquid Light is trying to scale up was developed at Princeton University and involves applying catalysts to carbon dioxide and water, using either electricity or direct sunlight to drive the process of converting them back to fuel.
Teamey says the technology is far enough along to make the leap from laboratory to marketplace in a reasonable time frame — which means about three years. But of course scaling up comes with its own set of obstacles. “Anytime you have a new discovery, there is a lot of challenge to taking it from the size of a coffee mug to something that will produce billions of tons of whatever you are producing,” he says.
But the potential for this technology as an alternative fuel is big and the cost is right. “This is something that could be competitive with existing fossil-based fuels,” says Teamey. “We want to take carbon dioxide out of the smokestack and convert it to something useful.”
Because energy drives our entire economy, Liquid Light’s primary focus is on fuels. But Teamey says its products will be important for the chemical industry as well. “Everyone thinks of the chemical industry as separate from oil and gas, but to a large extent they are the same,” he says. “Most organic chemicals are produced from oil and gas, and the production of fuels is just a very large chemical process.”
The technology was created in the laboratory of Andrew Bocarsly, a chemistry professor at Princeton University who works part time for Liquid Light and advised the doctoral thesis of Emily Cole, a researcher at Liquid Light focused on scaling up the process.
Teamey found out about the research in Bocarsly’s lab almost by accident in the course of his work investigating clean technologies for California-based capital investment firm Redpoint Ventures, which he still does part time. He and Bocarsly founded Liquid Light, whose CEO, physicist Nety Krishna, works at Redpoint Ventures.
Liquid Light licensed the technology from Princeton University and signed a sponsored research agreement for additional research and development by a postdoctoral fellow and a couple of doctoral candidates. Company research is also done on site at Liquid Light’s offices on Deer Park Drive by Cole and Narayanappa Sivasankar.
Cole earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Texas in Austin, which pressed its undergraduates to get involved with research. She worked with Keith Stevenson on trying to create layers of nanomaterials for sensing devices. When Cole was visiting Princeton University, Bocarsly told her about a carbon dioxide reduction project begun by a previous graduate student but had lain dormant since 1994. When she arrived in the fall of 2005 she got the project going again, using energy from sunlight to make carbon dioxide into methanol.
Sivasankar, after earning his doctorate in India, where he focused on catalysis, has done postdoctoral work at two well-known research laboratories. At ETH in Zurich he worked on hydro-treating oil to purify it by taking out organic nitrogen and sulfur. He came to the United States, for a simple reason. “Most of the frontier research in science happens in the United States,” he says. He did a second postdoc at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he worked on artificial photosynthesis using nanocatalysis.
Teamey grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon, a town of 17,000 people whose livelihood revolved around lumber. “The only time it makes the news is when there is an environmental crisis,” says Teamey of Klamath Falls. His mother was a sixth-grade teacher and his father a dentist who also worked for county health boards.
Oregon’s timber industry went belly up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, devastating the town’s economy. But because the lumber industry was so intertwined with the physical environment issues, Teamey was exposed to environmental challenges from an early age.
What brought things to a crisis point in Klamath Falls was the regional fight over endangered status for the spotted owl, which lives in old-growth forest. Once it got the endangered designation from the Environmental Protection Agency, the lumber companies could not cut down any more old growth. This decision derailed the industry — even though by that time only 5 percent of old-growth forest was left in the state, because the timber industry had been harvesting wood at an unsustainable rate.
For young Teamey, the demise of the timber industry made a big impression. “You could see how private business decisions can degrade the environment in a way that makes your business go bankrupt,” he says. “The whole sustainability issue was front and center.”
Luckily his hometown has recovered. “Even though it hurt the town in the short run,” says Teamey, “it caused the economy to diversify.” People started doing value-added work on doors and windows and technology firms moved in.
When Teamey went to Dartmouth he studied environmental engineering. After graduating in 1998 he joined the army to repay the ROTC scholarship that had put him through college. He was assigned to a tank unit and spent a year in Iraq, during a period of relatively low violence when the army was able to build schools and develop the local economy and infrastructure.
Teamey’s interest in energy began with his work as an undergraduate in a lab that did biofuels research on cellulosic ethanol. This research eventually developed into Mascoma, a company started by Dartmouth professors that builds energy projects primarily in the areas of solar, wind, and biomass.
In 2003 and 2004 Teamey served as an army captain in military intelligence in Ramadi, Iraq. As a colleague of John Nagl, whose doctoral work explored counterinsurgency, Teamey co-wrote the counterinsurgency field manual ordered by General David Petraeus; the manual was used as a basis for his strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As army doctrine, explains Teamey, “a field manual is supposed to give advice to people on how to conduct that form of warfare. Instead of fighting tanks, you’re fighting people with improvised explosive devices.”
When Teamey left the military, he was a consultant to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which, he explains, “is the arm of the Department of Defense that does ‘out there’ technologies. It literally invented the Internet and is responsible for pretty much all major innovation in satellites and aircraft.” Teamey’s work at the organization mostly involved information technology.
Teamey returned to his engineering roots with an energy startup named Switch, where he gained experience in the design aspects of energy products and the finances of putting them together.
While at Switch he earned a master’s degree in energy policy and international finance at Johns Hopkins.
In 2007, after about three years with Switch, Teamey left to help set up a consulting company, Dunia Frontier Consultants. Dunia means “earth” in Arabic, Swahili, Hindi, and 10 other languages, and the company works with private equity funds to invest in energy projects focused primarily on emerging markets; it is now headquartered in Dubai.
Teamey left Dunia when offered the opportunity to set up Liquid Light. He lives in the District of Columbia, where his wife works, and he stays over in Princeton several days a week.
Because the company is so early-stage, Teamey is circumspect about making predictions for Liquid Light’s future.
“If we can reach all of the technical milestones, if we can scale up effectively, we will have something very interesting,” he says. “The focus of our effort is still on scaling the technology, and I would like it to be up to a pilot scale in the next two or three years.
But given the Liquid Light’s short existence, it has been making a lot of progress. The company has filed multiple patents for making more products out of carbon dioxide than originally anticipated.
And for the moment Teamey has found his niche, bringing together his early interest in the environment, his engineering background, and his expertise in working with start-up companies.
“I’ve always wanted to work in what I’m working on right now,” he says.
Liquid Light, 7 Deer Park Drive, Princeton Corporate Plaza, Suite F, Monmouth Junction 08852; 732-274-2215. Kyle Teamey, COO. Home page: www.llfuels.com.