A company that claims to be the world's first and only carbon dioxide removal solution that is "permanent, affordable and immediately scalable" will soon be open for business in Pine Bluff.
Barclay Rogers, founder and CEO of Graphyte, said his company is setting up an industrial site at Jefferson Industrial Park and a storage site expected to be acquired west of the city. Operations are expected to begin in January, with plans to expand in other locations.
"Pine Bluff is our start and will be important to us as we go forward," Rogers said.
Bill Gates' Breakthrough Energy Ventures is the investment group behind Graphyte, Rogers confirmed. He collaborated with Chris Rivest, a partner in Breakthrough, which is considered a leader in low-carbon investments, a space in which Rogers worked for a long time.
Graphyte's mission is to fight climate change by reducing the emission of carbon dioxide through "carbon casting," with an emphasis on helping the agriculture and timber industries in that effort.
"First thing to understand is, in the low-carbon economy, we're a new startup company focused on broad efforts to decarbonize the broad economy," Rogers, 49, said. "I think the broader answer is -- let's look at Fortune 500 companies -- two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies have made carbon-neutral pledges or some version of a carbon pledge, and we are in the business of helping those companies fulfill those pledges. It is a commercial activity and not a government initiative in any form."
A resident of San Francisco who grew up and finished high school in West Memphis, Rogers said Pine Bluff is a perfect place to do business. His paternal grandparents farmed in Tucker and his paternal grandmother, Lillian Rogers, was a justice of the peace and worked under then-County Judge Earl Chadick. His father attended school in Altheimer.
Rogers' maternal grandparents are from Dumas.
"I spent 20 years in California and other parts of the world working in startups. When I founded this company, I knew we could do this in Pine Bluff and I want to do this in Pine Bluff," said Rogers, a graduate of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. "It's important to me. We're hiring local people. It's bringing literally the most cutting-edge thing that's happening in the world in terms of a very innovative way to approach carbon dioxide removal and doing it here in Pine Bluff."
Graphyte plans to begin with 10 employees, and Rogers said he is still taking applications. How big the company will grow is what he considers an open question.
"Pine Bluff is a very natural place to do business," Rogers said. "The reason for that is really two things: One, we use what we call biomass feedstocks, but really processing from other industries like timber and agriculture. We take the byproducts of their processes and we use those as feedstocks into our process."
Graphyte's primary feedstocks are agricultural byproducts, Rogers said. That could refer to things such as rice hulls for rice mills, or in timber, sawdust and bark -- things Rogers said may have little commercial value but are stockpiled.
"We take those materials as a feedstock into our process," Rogers said. "Those materials have about 50% carbon in them. They basically have carbon. What would otherwise happen to those materials is that carbon would be reemitted into the atmosphere, either through the material that is decomposing or rotting, or through it being burned in a boiler or something like that. Either way, that carbon in that material is going to go back into the atmosphere."
The goal for Graphyte is to stop that from happening through looking at the causes of decomposition and driving down the material where microbes cannot survive, press it into blocks, and encapsulate it in an environmentally safe wrapper.
"Now, you have dry biomass in a block," Rogers said. "It's encapsulated in an impermeable barrier. There you have it. There is carbon, and we store it in a storage site which is an underground, lined site we've monitored to make sure that carbon is reemitted into the atmosphere."
Graphyte's establishment has also made national headlines. The Washington Post, for example, covered it with the headline "The Lego-like way to Get CO2 out of the atmosphere."
Three clients for Graphyte's services have been secured -- two of whom Rogers was authorized to mention. One is Arkansas River Rice in Pine Bluff, which is said to be the only Black-owned rice mill in the U.S., and the other is Anthony Timberlands in Malvern.
"They're really making a dent in carbon removal, because they're taking a byproduct we really don't use anyway and turning that into permanent carbon removal," P.J. Haynie, co-owner of Arkansas River Rice, said of Graphyte. "That's the cool part. The rice that we're growing, we're trying to put it in an environmentally friendly way and a climate-smart way. We're reducing our methane gas emissions, and when we're working with Graphyte, what we're doing is to take that carbon out. People don't really understand the big picture of what we're doing in Pine Bluff, and it's huge."
Graphyte's establishment comes nearly two months after GTL Americas announced the start of its front-end engineering and design, the first phase of its establishment in northern Jefferson County, near the National Center for Toxicological Research. That project, considered the largest single-industrial development undertaking, is expected to employ 2,500 construction workers and up to 250 full-time employees during the phase.
Now, Rogers is starting up another potential game-changer in southeast Arkansas' largest city.
"This is one of the most important things we can do to decarbonize the economy, and I want to start it here in Arkansas," he said.
"We believe we have the most appealing approach to removing carbon dioxide that exists. It's a very early market. As that market matures, we will grow with the market, and we will grow here in Pine Bluff."