How a diamond company is giving carbon capture a boost

Luxury diamond producers are usually much more focused on glistening chunks of rock in the ground than on the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But a diamond company is trying to turn the gems into a crucial lever in the climate battle by growing diamonds from carbon sucked straight from the sky.

That company is ethera lab-grown diamond startup that just raised $18 million in a funding round led by Helenaa “global problem-solving organization” that includes both a for-profit investment company and a non-profit action group. Lab-grown diamonds are a popular market, and there’s no shortage of companies claiming these synthetic gems are more ethical or environmentally friendly than their Earth mined counterparts – and there are even others businesses also focused on making diamonds using carbon dioxide from the air. But Aether’s claims are backed up by some ambitious facts about how it works: It doesn’t just make diamonds in a process powered by clean energy — it removes 20 tons of extra CO2 from the atmosphere per carat it produces.

While the cost of capturing all that carbon would be high for a company selling cement, for example, it’s something the luxury jewelry brand says it can absorb easily. And the world needs companies that can pay for so-called direct air capture and still make a profit if the nascent technology is ever going to make a dent in climate change.

“It’s just too damn expensive to suck one ton of CO2 out of the air”

“It’s just too damn expensive to suck one ton of CO2 out of the air on a price per ton basis,” Helena founder and CEO Henry Elkus told Custom Hour. “It is not a profitable business at the moment. And in order for direct airborne carbon culture to achieve economies of scale, that price has to come down.”

Scaling up direct air capture has been part of Aether’s mission from the beginning. CEO Ryan Shearman and COO Daniel Wojno founded the company in 2018 after reading about direct air capture and intensive research into whether atmospheric carbon can be used to forge diamonds. Their hope, Shearman told Custom Hour, has always been to sell enough diamonds to meaningfully support the direct air capture market, which in recent years has sparked a lot of interest from tech industry philanthropists but few customers who are sustainable for the industry. can pay for services. Currently, companies such as Microsoft Climeworks, a leading direct air capture company headquartered in Switzerland, pay about $600 to capture a ton of CO2.

Aether, which also partners with Climeworks, declined to disclose how much it pays for direct air shelter services. But it says it can turn one tonne of captured CO2 into “millions of dollars worth of diamonds.” By carat, those are diamonds, an ultra-pure variety known as Type IIa diamonds that are hard to find in nature sell for anywhere from $4,900 to over $10,000. Shearman says this price range is higher than many competitors in the lab space and closer to mined diamonds because of the extra work required to make the manufacturing process as clean as possible.

it can turn a ton of captured CO2 into “millions of dollars worth of diamonds”

That process begins with Aether purchasing carbon dioxide at the Climeworks plant in Switzerland and shipping it to the United States, where the diamonds are grown. Aether converts that CO2 through a proprietary process to convert it into high-purity methane, or CH4. That methane is then injected directly into the company’s diamond reactors, where a method known as “chemical vapor deposition” is used to grow rough diamond material over the course of several weeks.

The chemical vapor deposition process involves heating gases to very high temperatures below nearlyvacuum conditions, and this requires a lot of energy. Shearman tells Custom Hour that this process and other stages of production are powered entirely by carbon-free sources such as solar and nuclear power. Once the diamonds are finished growing, they are shipped to Surat, India, where they are cut and polished before being sent back to New York City’s diamond district for sale.

A stack of diamonds and rose gold rings against a white background.

Aether’s entire operation, Shearman says, is carbon neutral, with carbon offsets used to offset emissions from its New York facilities and those that occur when the company’s products are shipped by air and sea. to do. The carbon taken from the air to make each diamond, Shearman says, tilts the manufacturing process “into carbon negative territory.”

“We saw this as a manufacturing technology that would allow us to produce diamonds of the same quality as the best diamonds on the market,” Shearman says, “but without all the negative externalities associated with diamond mining or traditional lab-grown diamonds, which have a litany of challenges.” Today, many lab-grown diamonds are produced using fossil energy, and many also use fossil fuel-derived methane as a feedstock in their reactors.

for every carat of diamond it sells, the company says it takes 20 tons of extra carbon from the air

Aether only needs a relatively small amount of carbon dioxide to make the diamonds themselves — think fractions of grams rather than tons. For every carat of diamond it sells, the company then says it removes an additional 20 tons of carbon from the air, using a combination of direct air capture and other carbon removal methods that retain carbon long-term. Shearman says the company based this commitment on the fact that the average American has an annual carbon footprint of about 16 tons, meaning most customers can expect to roughly cancel a year’s personal emissions by purchasing an Aether diamond. “It’s something that’s proven difficult but doable, and we’re really proud to be able to do that,” he says.

Aether began shipping its first diamonds to customers in mid-2021. While Shearman declined to provide specific sales figures, he says the company produced “hundreds of carats” of diamonds last year and plans to produce thousands this year. Shearman described the $18 million in Series A funds raised by Helena as “the fuel that will enable us to increase our manufacturing footprint this year.”

direct air capture alone will not solve climate change

Elkus van Helena says the organization invests in companies that “demonstrably address or will address a social problem”. It saw Aether as addressing two problems at once: the high costs of direct air capture, and the environmental and human rights issues associated with diamond mining and the larger diamond industry. While Elkus believes Aether’s approach to converting CO2 to methane, and from there to physical things, can be applied to many industries, focusing on a luxury good first “gives you the margins to run profitable business, and that’s certainly a great leap forward.”

Aether will not solve all the challenges facing direct air capture, and direct air capture alone will not solve climate change. The climate technology remains controversialwith some environmentalists seeing it as a distraction from the hard work of curbing the world’s use of fossil fuels, even if models agree we will need to extract carbon from the air to stabilize global temperatures at safe levels this century.

Whether Aether’s sales pitch of a cleaner diamond being pulled out of thin air is appealing enough to distract a significant number of would-be diamond owners from gems forged deep into the earth remains to be seen. But the stakes seem a little higher than one jeweler’s fortune.

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