Alumnus Matt Lee Starts Groundbreaking Carbon Capture Company

Dec. 05, 2023 - Matt Lee ’12, Ph.D., has invented a game-changing carbon capture solvent that catches one thousand more times carbon than a forest - and it does it for less than $100 a ton, a goal set by the U.S. Department of Energy. Current costs range between $250 to $600, according to the World Resources Institute. With this revolutionary technology, Lee and prominent entrepreneur Charles Cadieu founded the new company Spiritus.

Lee’s new solvent is modeled after alveoli, or air sacs in the lungs, and is shaped like round balls. The balls will be laid out like fruit in a carbon-capture orchard to absorb carbon from the air with maximum efficiency.  Afterward, the balls undergo a desorption process that removes the carbon and is powered by clean energy.   

“We have multiple innovations that reduce energy costs,” Lee said. “We utilize passive air contacting that does not use fans and we have a novel desorption process that releases the CO2 from the sorbent with reduced energy needs.”  Their solvents are also reusable. This technology makes Spiritus, which means “breath” in Latin, a gamechanger in the carbon capture industry.

Lee invented the technology and is chief technology officer and co-founder of Spiritus. He began working on synthesizing porous materials at UC Irvine, where he received a master’s degree and a doctorate in chemical engineering.

“Matt was truly a superstar,” said Ali Mohraz, UCI professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, who mentored him. “He had a keen eye to unveil exciting and unexpected science in our journey, a high standard of scientific excellence and an uncanny drive to reach it.”

While at UCI, Lee developed a new method of making porous materials with unique pore connectivity and internal surface geometry, using bijels as templates, an expertise the research group is still known for today.

Lee shares how his UCI experience helped prepare him for his current venture. “My experience at UCI was inspirational in that the faculty, staff and my fellow students always encouraged collaboration and the value of new perspectives that come from working alongside experts in technical areas different from my own,” Lee said. “The carbon capture problem can only be addressed with a multidisciplinary approach.”

In December 2021, Lee began his new venture with Cadieu, after working for 10 years as a specialist in colloid science at Los Alamos National Lab. Cadieu is a successful entrepreneur who had also founded IQ Engines and Caption Health. IQ Health was acquired by Yahoo!/Flickr while Caption Health developed new medical technology that was named a 100 Best Invention by TIME Magazine in 2021.

Spiritus recently announced an $11 million funding raise led by prominent venture capital firm Khosla Ventures and is one of 12 companies that Stripe, Shopify and H&M Group have selected for carbon captures.

“Our vision is a future world where carbon removal becomes a pillar of civilizational infrastructure, similar to waste disposal and wastewater treatment,” Lee said. “If we can establish carbon removal as such a pillar, then the reversal of global warming truly becomes viable for future generations.” 

- Natalie Tso