In a gritty corner of San Francisco, Peter Reinhardt is leading me past what looks like the site of an industrial accident. Propane tanks, steel airlocks, and heavy equipment lay scattered in partial disassembly.
Then there are the almond shells. Sixty-pound sacks lie on the ground next to towers of steel tubing, ready to be incinerated along with other crop waste hauled in from California’s central valley. The plants’ molecules will tear apart in a superheated atmosphere of carbon dioxide, producing a stream of hydrogen and other gases. That’s how Reinhardt’s startup Charm Industrial, crammed here between auto body shops and windowless metal-clad warehouses, hopes to power a zero-carbon future: by turning plants into a carbon-free replacement for fossil fuels.
Until a few months ago, Reinhardt, an MIT aerospace engineer who sold his data company Segment.io for about $3.2 billion in early October, remained skeptical this idea would work at all. He had spent Saturdays for nearly two years investigating different biochemical pathways and hitting dead ends until he found one that might turn a profit. Now he’s trying to prove it.