Mineral Carbon International – Recycling CO2 a competitive advantage for Australia?

With a year marked by bushfires, hailstorms and a global pandemic; climate change and the decisions we make today are going to determine the challenges we face in the future.

The innovative carbon engineering technology developed by Canberra based Mineral Carbonation International (MCi) provides a decarbonisation solution for industries such as mining, manufacturing, cement, steel and energy. Not reliant on carbon pricing, offsets or subsidies; MCi creates products from CO2 emissions by using mineral feedstocks to combine with CO2 to create valuable materials for use in manufactured products.

As technologies improve to capture carbon, the question is what will we do with it? Store it or use it?

According to CEO Marcus Dawe, the first investigation into their technology was in the US around the late 90s and early 2000 at Los Alamos and the US Department of Energy.

“They did the preliminary work, but it really wasn’t promising,” says Marcus. “The costs were too high but it was just lab scale work and this was all done before the renewable energy revolution had taken off.”

“We picked it up in 2007 and we asked ourselves if we could we improve the technology, because the real question with CO2 is:  What can you possibly do with all the CO2 that needs to be reduced, captured from industry and ultimately removed from our atmosphere to meet our climate targets?”

“Until now, when we hear about carbon capture and underground storage or CCS we are asked to think about CO2 as a waste to be disposed of.  CCS has been a long time coming and attracted a lot of investment. MCi however believe that there needs to be many other solutions that can help us with our global climate challenge. This is where ours comes in and rather than CCS, our technology is called carbon capture and use – CCU.”

“It’s evident and obvious when you stop thinking about CO2 and emissions as a waste, and you start thinking about it as a resource, that the economics change too. We started asking what can we convert CO2 in to. What products, which markets and what are the logistics?  These questions are now addressed in our technology platform.”

“You have to be able to scale any solution to meet the scale of our emissions problem. Initially we need to be reducing and avoiding CO2 emissions but ultimately we need to be drawing down and have negative emissions technologies (NETs) such as mass planting of trees, soil carbon, and bio-sequestration and storage (BECCS) but we also believe transforming it back into minerals is another really big solution needed and one which the Earth already does over millions of years in weathering. Our solution speeds this natural process up – this is mineral carbonation.”

Funded by Australian government and industry

Funded for the last 7 years by the Australian governments and industry with over $20m, MCi has designed and built three carbon reactor systems, including a global reference pilot plant at the University of Newcastle. They believe theirs is the first purpose designed pilot plant for CO2 mineral carbonation beyond laboratory scale in the world. MCi has received global recognition for their research including the 2018 Resource Innovator of the Year award at the New Materials Summit in Berlin. MCi employs around 20 chemical engineers, scientists and dedicated professionals who are driving their technology forward alongside their team of Canberra angel investors who recently contributed nearly $4m to their initial seed raise for commercialisation in 2020.

The process developed by MCi is simple – they transform CO2 from a gas into a solid. Their research group has investigated many different process routes with industrial customers and is actively testing the commercial potential to create low carbon products such as building and construction materials in cements, concretes, aggregates and plasterboard just to name a few. Additionally, they are developing advanced materials like fire retardants for plastics and clothing which are being explored through joint research programs with global partners. Marcus revealed they recently signed on a large European materials group for testing MCi materials in their industrial products. Furthermore, MCi has been working with cement and steel makers in Australia and overseas this year doing similar work on new low emissions products.

Marcus says MCi can rapidly identify and assess an industrial candidate site where the CO2 and feedstocks are available nearby and then identify a business model and the techno-economics to drive for a project to build one of their carbon plants.

“We can assess a potential site for one of our plants in weeks and then using our pilot plant validate the feasibility in three to six months for a customer. This quick assessment makes our model really attractive in business development terms”.

MCi has received attention from the US, Europe and Asia where they are planning to export the technology. However they do have an ‘Australia first’ principle when assessing their pipeline because the technology creates jobs typically in regional and remote areas and plays to Australia’s strengths in material handling, mining and advanced manufacturing.

“The demand for decarbonisation solutions in industry is now rapidly emerging and some customers are now saying they are already capturing CO2 or plan to shortly.  Having this cost removed and in a position of giving us the CO2 means for us that the project pipeline for using the CO2 to create materials, transforming CO2 to value is even faster. There’s going to be a lot of CO2 to go around.”

No business plan survives the first customer

Marcus reminds us of the old adage that no business plan survives the first customer interaction.

“The beauty with MCi is that we know what we have, we know the value that we provide, and we’ve got a good path to build strong returns from these new ‘carbon infrastructure assets’ for our customers. However, when our first major customer came to us last year wanting our technology, they came with additional value propositions further to what we had considered. They actually wanted our technology to remediate their mining waste as the feedstock to absorb the CO2” says Marcus.

This, according to Marcus, illustrated that there are even more benefits to their technology that they hadn’t anticipated – creating sustainable pathways for mining and manufacturing of nickel, cobalt and lithium which is now highly sought after by Elon Musk and the electric vehicle and battery manufacturers.  This makes MCi’s technology also a significant solution for cleaning up mining industry’s tailings and wastes by using CO2 emissions as the remediating agent.

Marcus says the demand for technologies to assist in the decarbonisation of industry positions MCi in a strategic position to help multiple sectors across heavy industries, not just the energy sector.

MCi are not competing with renewable, which are themselves making major contributions in avoiding emissions from energy generation, but rather MCi are helping transition the harder to abate sectors like steel and cement. Carbon capture and use is becoming an important field in its own right with its own technologies, different from that being developed in the fields of carbon capture and storage or CCS.

Creating a CO2 Value Supply Chain

MCi has been instrumental in founding CO2 Value Australia, a not-for-profit industry policy group working to develop a new industry sector in CO2 Utilisation. The group works internationally in partnership with CO2 Value Europe which has 70 members, including big corporate and industry players who have realised that they’re all players in a carbon value chain – from plastics and fuels and bio diesels and even oil and gas majors.

Carbon capture & use or CCU covers both established and innovative industrial processes that divert or capture greenhouse gas emissions and transform them into useful value-add products.

While talk around decarbonisation, particularly of fossil fuels and energy, has been previously dominated by oil, coal and gas industries; Marcus says carbon capture & use is a different thing. A whole new industrial sector is emerging that focuses on the circular economy and addresses the hard to abate industries like cement and steel and manufacturing. “Our great advance has been to be able to take raw flue gas not only captured CO2 into our process and so reducing the energy cost of our solution.”

“MCi is a flagship technology with a 2-3 year head start in this area and now we need to scale fast. We also need new policies from our governments like how to treat the carbon credits from our technology. While other approaches like CCS need subsidies and support and offer a cost-based solution – they will cost you X amount of dollars to get rid of a tonne of CO; what we’ve shown to our customers is that we can make them hundreds of dollars net profit per tonne. For example, a recent technical economic assessment we did for a large mining customer showed that in the minimum case, we would be producing several hundreds of dollars per tonne of CO2 gross profit after all costs and remove nearly all their CO2 from their operations. And this will just get better as you get better products and pathways for low emissions materials into their supply chains,” says Marcus.

“We are developing a pipeline of demonstration projects that intend to make money immediately and can scale further to make a major contribution to lowering emissions globally and they are therefore an investable proposition by the emerging ‘ESG’ and climate funding pools,” says Marcus.

The impact of COVID-19 on internationally-focused businesses

Marcus believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has done two things for the export environment. One is that it has made local communities stronger. And secondly, it has also tested and often broken supply chain relationships because of supply logistics challenges.

“It’s actually made people think – if you want to be global you need to think local first,” says Marcus. They went from thinking they had to go to the US first to now where they are progressing potential projects in most states in Australia in this their first year of commercialisation during COVID-19.

“Rebuilding networks is also going to be key so why not do things from here first? In Australia, what that means is actually preprocessing and doing other forms of manufacture. There is also the opportunity to bring some innovation in to share costs and lower costs”.

Marcus also highlights the changes that have impacted business development.

“Everybody is in the same boat. What this has meant is that we are happy to have our first conversation online. Previously, we needed to get on a plane and meet somebody to create a relationship, now we’re actually more than happy to build business with new customers or partners over Zoom because it’s just the new normal. This has broken the distance barrier and that bodes well for Australia because we are remote anyway and this has put us into a better position.”

“Think about how you might do business better by using local talent and better communication technology.  If you want to do business with Vietnam, then find someone in your local community that speaks Vietnamese and get them onto your team to be your liaison and in that way, you build your network locally for global”.

Marcus also believes that there is also opportunity for intermediaries so that you are building up your supply chain locally first.

“Every country is now operating on the point of view of sovereign first, rebuilding and rethinking their export relationships. Governments have to stimulate, it’s like we’re in a post-war phase. It’s about rebuilding and stimulating industry, and it’s exciting that the government has stepped up”.

“Australia is a world leader in the resources industry and services which support it.  If we can help decarbonize that sector we will not only protect key export earnings and jobs but create a new services export opportunity.  If the Government wants to help, it should support the demonstration at scale of technologies like ours to get them to market as soon as possible”.

“I think the new normal of many people is to buy not just on price but on supporting local first. Businesses need to take advantage of that so it becomes virtuous and further builds our local capacity and resilience in our economy”.

“Think global, act local.” says Marcus Dawe in summing up.

An initiative of the ACT Chief Minister’s Export Awards

The ACT Chief Minister’s Export Awards aims to showcase and celebrate the achievements of Canberra region exporting businesses. These Canberra and region businesses transact significant parts of their business activities (legal, accounting, production, research etc.) through the ACT as they develop international markets. The ACT Chief Minister’s Export Awards aims to build the pathway for new and emerging Canberra region businesses seeking to internationalise their business.

If you are a new or existing exporting businesses in the Canberra region, you can access a range of support as well as network with other exporting businesses, including:

The ACT TradeStart Program helps ACT exporters to achieve long term success in international markets. The TradeStart program allows the ACT Government to work closely with Austrade and access key Austrade resources such as their export database, trade mission activities, their off-shore offices, intelligence and international connections for the trade and investment activities to support ACT exporters.

The International Business Engagement Program is being delivered by Canberra Business Chamber on behalf of the ACT Government. Its main objective is to maintain, rebuild and find new opportunities for Canberra and region businesses to engage internationally. The program focuses on building the Territory’s exporting community; providing training and support by facilitating seminars and workshops; creating links between local industry and other government support programs; assisting the ACT Government in co-ordination of business trade delegations (outbound and inbound).

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