Planning for Mars helped make a better beer

Preparing to help astronauts live and work on Mars, NASA built a system that would let them breathe the Martian air by removing its carbon dioxide. Then NASA licensed the technology, and that is how Earthly Labs of Austin, Texas, ended up helping craft breweries across the USA to produce a better tasting beer while saving money and helping to protect the environment. 

It is quite a story. And it’s not just beer – from shoes to vodka to concrete, our carbon footprints are being transformed into assets that you might not have thought of as ways to meet the Paris Agreement climate goals. 

Amy George founded Earthly Labs in 2016. She saw multinational companies scrubbing CO2 and wondered if it could be done on a smaller scale.  “Beer made the most sense to start. Breweries produce it every day and could reuse it immediately for carbonation,” she said. Beer is made from hops, malt, yeast, water and CO2. Brewers also use CO2 to carbonate and package their beer, commonly purchasing it from a third-party provider. But this was only available for large scale breweries, not for smaller craft brewers. 

“Our original vision: Breweries capture their waste and reuse it, save money and, in the process, save the planet,” she told CNN Business.

Earthly Labs was among the first companies to make a system that was affordable and scaled down for small brewers in the US. Its CiCi technology, which captures CO2 from fermentation, transforms it into a liquid, purifies it and stores it for reuse, gives small breweries a way to improve their profit margins and drive consumer demand while also reducing up to 50% greenhouse gas emissions each day and saving thousands of dollars a year.  A CiCi unit which produces about 620,000 gallons of beer each year costs $120,000.

“By implementing Earthly Lab’s CiCi carbon capture technology, we advance all of our goals,” says Josh Hare, chairman of the board of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild. “And we’re not just backing cleantech that reduces our CO2 emissions and costs, but we are also making better beer and that makes our customers happy.”

from Earthly Labs website

CiCi is now in 70 breweries in at least 25 states, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, with at least 20 more waiting for installation, says George.

“Earthly Labs was built on the philosophy that people will protect the planet if given the right tools,” she says. “Our goal is to capture one billion metric tons of CO2 as fast as possible. We believe that many of us working together in small ecosystems to do what we can — right now — is the successful formula to fighting climate change. It is not someone else’s problem to solve. It is ours.”

One of the things that energized Earthly Labs was its participation in the $20 million, five year NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, set up in 2015 to incentivize entrepreneurs to develop breakthrough technologies that convert CO₂ emissions into usable products. That was a time when few people had ever heard of the idea of converting CO2 into usable products, XPRIZE said.

“Today, carbon capture and utilization are thankfully higher up the news agenda, with global tech companies, governments, and environmentalists understanding that a circular carbon economy is one of our greatest hopes in safeguarding the future of the planet,” XPRIZE said in a 2020 update. “Finding valuable ways to reuse carbon is central to this model, and if carbon can be used to make a product that is often otherwise made from fossil fuels? Even better.”

While the two major prize winners in that XPrize were focused on producing green concrete, one in Canada and one in the US, the contest also inspired a wide range of products from perfume to sustainable jet fuel.

But beyond the inventions, XPRIZE and its sponsors “also want to encourage global cooperation and spur outside investment,” says Wired. “Historically, XPRIZEs have generated roughly 10x the value of the prize purse in private investment, while getting global teams together to accelerate innovation. Just like that $25K did for aviation nearly a century earlier, the Ansari XPRIZE for commercial spaceflight catalyzed the entire spaceflight industry, inspiring the launch of companies that are now household names, from Virgin Galactic to Blue Origin and SpaceX.”

That Carbon X-Prize also inspired the Circular Carbon Network – “the world’s largest carbontech database, building investor networks, unlocking capital investment, and driving deal flow in the emerging carbontech sector” which now produces yearly updates.  

Addressing smaller sources of CO2 is less costly per installation than on large facilites, George says. “If you have a lot of people investing smaller amounts of money, you have an opportunity to scale impact faster,” she said. “We all need to move as fast as possible.”

X-Prize says that interest in the sector keeps growing, with innovators having raised $2.69 billion in 2022 alone, which it regards as “a hopeful sign that the market is starting to mature and we are getting closer to scaling this category of critical climate solutions.” 


$20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize: What happened next? XPrize, Nov. 11, 2021

Inside the $20 Million Prize That’s Saving the World. Wired

Earthly Labs launches CO2 recovery system sized for craft breweries. Craft Brewing Business, Jan. 29, 2019

Breweries are turning carbon dioxide into liquid gold. CNN, Aug. 21, 2020

Breweries are starting to capture carbon — from beer. Washington Post, Jun. 3, 2023

Napa Winery Adopts Carbon Capture Technology. Wine Spectator, Nov. 2, 2021

Cover image: Bohdan Stocek, Unsplash