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Raising a glass to greener beer: Former GR Current director helps craft brewers cut carbon emissions

Dr. Stanley Samuel

Reclamation of carbon emissions is a topic of intense interest for beer breweries and other producers of alcohol, but until now, solutions for craft brewers and smaller operations have been limited. Grand Rapids entrepreneur and former GR Current director Dr. Stanley Samuel is on a mission to change that with his new startup and its innovative carbon sequestration technology.
The vast majority of carbon dioxide emissions created by humans, about 87 percent, come from fossil fuels. However, there’s also a long tail of other, lesser sources that you don’t hear too much about. Beer brewing, for example.

It’s an inconvenient truth of the alcohol industry that fermentation naturally creates a molecule of carbon dioxide — the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activity and the main cause of man-made climate change, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — for every molecule of ethanol, even though most beer drinkers probably never spend a second thinking about the carbon footprint of their IPA.

Brewers also purchase and release CO2 in order to purge their tanks of air and airborne microorganisms, and to carbonate their beers. The issue is especially pronounced for craft brewers, many of whom espouse a commitment to sustainability, but can’t afford existing carbon-reclamation systems, which are big, expensive and energy-intensive.

A local entrepreneur and biomedical engineer has a new solution, though, that might help level the playing field and enable craft brewers to inch a little further toward the dream of sustainable, zero-waste beer production.

CASEQ Technologies is a new Grand Rapids-based startup from former GR Current director and entrepreneur Stanley Samuel. The company’s name is a contraction of the term “carbon sequestration,” which is the technical label for the process involved in sorting out and capturing carbon dioxide.

Samuel says that his company’s new technology, which he designed and developed over the past two years, and which he says differs fundamentally from existing methods, has the potential to provide an affordable, scalable, energy-efficient, and easily-maintainable alternative to existing carbon recycling systems for alcohol production.

Although the new technology has potential application in any field that involves fermentation, Samuel says that CASEQ’s initial focus will fall on craft breweries. He says that small breweries, both in Grand Rapids and nationwide, have a unique opportunity right now to explore new innovations, thanks to the boom their industry has seen in recent years.

“Obviously, it’s been a time of explosive growth for craft brewers,” Samuel says. “Right now, craft brewing is in a position for potential innovation thanks to their growth, and they’re also in a place to support that thanks to the expertise they’ve accumulated and their interest in seeing these things come about.”

The idea for CASEQ came about after Samuel’s previous startup, a local life-science company called OcuSano, Inc., went dormant thanks to immigration issues that Samuel was experiencing at the time (a story that Rapid Growth wrote about last year). Although OcuSano accomplished its goals with initial funding rounds, further funding dried up after Samuel couldn’t secure a long-term work visa, which spooked potential investors.

With OcuSano on the back burner (even though Samuel later obtained his visa), Samuel began to explore opportunities for a new startup, one that wouldn’t be so easily disrupted if his immigration problems did force him to leave the country.

“I said, ‘The next idea I want to work on, I want to get to revenue as soon as the process allows,’” Samuel says, “‘and number two, if this immigration application gets rejected again, I need to be able to take this company with me wherever I go.’ So it had to be almost agnostic to geography.”

With small and independent brewers capturing more of the beer market each year, and Grand Rapids’ rise as a prominent “beer city,” Samuel wondered whether there were any “gaps” in the brewing process where an entrepreneur with a new innovation could make an impact. He took an intensive online course in the chemistry of brewing and came up with a couple ideas—one which involved oxygenation of the wort (the pre-beer malt-and-water mixture that undergoes fermentation) during the brewing process, the other focused on recycling carbon byproducts, then contacted Founders to set up a meeting with their VPs of brewing and production.

The two brewmasters quickly knocked down his oxygenation idea, he said, but reacted very differently when he laid out his second concept.

“When I presented them the second idea, their eyes went like saucers,” Samuel says, “and they said, ‘Now that is a big problem for us, and by the way, it’s not only a problem for us, there are 1,500 craft brewers around the country that have this problem and could use a solution.’”

Samuel estimates that brewers spend about $60 million annually to purchase carbon dioxide for purging and carbonation, according to his own researched developed for CASEQ and based on data from the Brewers Association and surveys of brewers; this despite the fact that they produce the gas as a necessary byproduct of fermentation. The cost of available carbon-recycling systems for brewing is usually around $3 million at the lower end of the spectrum, according to Samuel, which means that only large-scale brewing operations have been able to implement them to this point.

Samuel spent the six months after that first meeting working out the scientific and technical hurdles of his idea with a team he put together. The small team worked in constant communication with four notable brewers from the West Michigan beer scene: Jacob Derylo from Brewery Vivant, John Stewart from Perrin Brewing, Dayton Coffey from New Holland Brewing, and Alec Mull from Founders, all of whom Samuel says were instrumental in shaping the technology through their feedback. As part of his vision to have an energy-efficient device, Samuel says, he also set out a requirement that the device have no moving mechanical components, such as internal pumps or motors.

The solution they came up with involved taking the waste from the beer fermentation process and using pressure to sort out its various gases by molecular weight. Their biggest challenge turned out to be separating CO2 from the volatiles—heavy compounds that are largely responsible for the aroma of beer—but by October 2014, the team had come up with a method to tackle this problem.

The resulting device takes advantage of and manipulates fluid flow to create large differences in pressure inside it, all without the use of any moving parts. The pressure differential it creates causes the lighter-weight CO2 to separate from the higher-weight volatiles, and the purified CO2 is then diverted to empty tanks for purging and eventually for carbonation—which would mean breweries may no longer have to buy carbon dioxide for these jobs.

The team worked up an initial prototype, then contacted Brewery Vivant to set up a test; Samuel admits he wasn’t sure whether the device would really work, despite the fact that everything had been worked out carefully on paper. Samuel and his team hooked up the device, and the CASEQ team and head brewer Derylo both measured the carbon output from the system, with a bit of nervous anticipation. They checked the CO2 output coming out of the device—and found it was significantly lower than what was coming out of the fermentation tank.

“It was definitely a fist-bump, fist-pumping kind of moment,” Samuel says.

Samuel says that CASEQ, which currently operates as a team of three—Dr. Samuel concentrates on strategy and business development, while the other two team members focus on engineering and manufacturing, plans to have a production version of the new technology installed in at least two West Michigan breweries by the end of 2016, although he said he could not name the specific breweries yet. He also could not yet provide a figure as to the cost of installation for CASEQ’s technology, but said it will cost “significantly less” than the existing alternatives.

The installed carbon-recycling system should immediately reduce carbon emissions in a brewery by 50 to 70 percent, Samuel says, with potential for even greater reduction later through added capabilities and enhancements. He also says that the technology has similar applications, which the company plans to explore later on, in other industries that use fermentation processes: winemaking, distilling and industrial chemical manufacturing. Samuel estimates that these industries together produce carbon emissions on the order of about 90 billion pounds annually, or approximately the annual carbon emissions of five or six million cars, based on his own research and mathematical modeling.

The system, which Samuel says will look like a fairly nondescript set of stainless steel tubing attached to the brewing tanks, was also designed to take up minimal space and keep out of the way of production work.

“We don’t want CO2 waste and reclamation to be something the brewery staff even worries about,” Samuel says. “We want it to stay out of the way and do its own thing, so they can focus on their specialty, which is making good beer.”

After the initial rollout and testing, Samuel says he plans for the company to scale up “hard and fast,” including possibly adding employees and purchasing warehouse and office space in 2016, and expanding its sales focus nationwide.

Besides the direct cost savings and emissions reductions, Samuel notes that breweries using the technology won’t have to vent as much hazardous carbon dioxide out of the brewery work environment, either, which reduces energy and money spent on heating, cooling and ventilation and further shrinks the brewery’s carbon footprint.

“You’re taking something that was really kind of a vicious cycle and you’re reversing that, turning it into a virtuous cycle,” he says.

Brewery Vivant co-owner and sustainability director Kris Spaulding says that she saw the need to “close the loop” of carbon byproducts in brewing long ago, but never heard of any solution that was practical for a craft brewing operation until she met Samuel at an event and learned about his work. She agrees that small breweries lag behind the big players in terms of access to some of the cutting-edge sustainability measures like carbon-recycling, and says that Samuel’s work can help close that gap.

“There’s so much great technology in our industry, but it’s all scaled for a much larger brewery,” Spaulding says. “Even most larger craft brewers aren’t big enough to take advantage of the technology [for carbon reclamation], whether it’s the cost or the physical footprint. So that’s been a challenge for us from the beginning: we know this technology is out there, but no one’s scaled it down.”

Spaulding also says that Brewery Vivant is committed to working with Samuel and CASEQ Technologies going forward, as part of the brewery’s ongoing mission to build a sustainable company with zero waste and a minimal carbon footprint.

“If you look at what we’re trying to do as a business, it’s to have the smallest environmental footprint we can — as well as have a positive impact in the community, with our employees and on the social side as well. And so anytime we can close loops, it just makes sense. Obviously [Samuel’s] technology is another way of going about that.”

“He’s a great mind,” Spaulding added of Samuel. “We’re really lucky to have him in our city, working on projects like this.”

Samuel says that his tenure as the director of GR Current, where he recently stepped back to the part-time “mentor” role in which he started, gave him a deep appreciation for the strength of networks and business opportunities available in West Michigan, and shaped his vision for the new company from the beginning.

“I got to see the 20,000-foot view of all the entrepreneurial activity in Grand Rapids and West Michigan,” Samuel says. “I got to understand, first of all, what it took to create a successful company, and also just the DNA of our community, and [started] to understand what things we are positioning ourselves for in the next five to 10 years.”

Besides the rush of his new project, Samuel also gets to move forward with his immigration saga behind him. His employment-based visa for “extraordinary ability” was approved last November, partially thanks to help and support from his colleagues at GR Current, including former director Jeff Royce and GVSU Seidman College of Business executive director J. Kevin McCurren. He says he’s committed now to staying in Grand Rapids so he can return the love and help grow the startup community.

“I get to build a company here in a community that has supported me, and I get to do it now in an unshackled manner,” Samuel says. “I can’t express enough about that feeling.”

Steven Thomas Kent is a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. You can reach him on Twitter at @steventkent or e-mail him at steventkent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback. His stories are made possible by support from Emerge West Michigan.

Photography by Adam Bird
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