In episode 70 of Amplify Your Business, Lance sits down to chat with Natalie Giglio, Operations and Development Associate at Carbon Upcycling, about how the company is working to reduce the environmental impact of concrete production through innovative carbon capture technology. Watch as Natalie shares how Carbon Upcycling found a niche in an established industry and what challenges they face as they try to expand their business.
(1:09) Natalie, what is Carbon Upcycling?
I'll start with some background. Concrete has been made the same way for hundreds of years - the same methods that were used to make the Colosseum are still in use today. It's a process that creates a lot of emissions. What we're doing at Carbon Upcycling is taking CO2 and making a high-performance concrete additive that makes it stronger, last longer, and with a lower carbon footprint that makes it better for the environment overall. This has "captured" the attention of concrete producers as they try to reach 2030 and 2050 goals for decarbonization in their processes.
(2:46) To put things in perspective, exactly how big is the carbon footprint created by concrete production?
It might blow your mind a bit - the cement and concrete industry is responsible for over 3 billion tons of CO2 emitted each year. That's about 8% of our annual global emissions! Concrete is second only to water as the most consumed resource we have around the world. So if you think about the scale and magnitude of this - almost every city you visit or building you walk into is built on a concrete foundation - concrete is a foundational material that needs some innovation brought to it.
(4:18) This additive you've created, how does it work? It captures CO2 and is then added to the concrete as it's formed, correct?
Correct! We use a reactor in the form of a large, tumbling drum that's pressurized with CO2. As its tumbling, the CO2 in that environment interacts with our additive, bonding with it and creating a permanent carbon storage solution. This material can then be used directly in concrete production. It's picked up from our site and delivered to a concrete silo, where it can be mixed into a concrete truck. The way it's added into the concrete optimizes the mix design by adding the strength of the CO2, reducing the amount of cement needed in the concrete. Concrete mixed with our additive is stronger and more sustainable than concrete made with traditional materials.
(6:06) It's fantastic that you're able to optimize the strength of the concrete, while also making it more sustainable. It sounds like a complete double win in that regard!
For sure! People often ask if it's too good to be true. It's not - we've found a niche in the market and applied our technology in a way that's really making an impact through quantifiable metrics. If you take a standard mix using our additives, you can lower the carbon footprint by 20-25% right away. It's a slow industry to move in. There's a lot of technical requirements and rigorous testing and regulation in concrete because it's so foundational. You have to go through a process - we started with low risk infrastructure like sidewalks and driveways, and now we've optimized the mixture so much that it's 30% lower carbon than it was even 5 years ago.
(7:26) What do you think the limit is for this technology? Are you capping-out the amount of carbon you can capture, or could it increase even from here?
As simple as it seems, it's so nuanced and complex. There are companies like us that supply an additive, and there are other companies that supply things like bio-based materials, which could be incorporated into a mix with our additives and further optimize the mix design. I'm hopeful that the trend continues in this direction. All concrete we use must be net zero emissions by 2050, so it won't just be our solution, but likely many different solutions stacking on top of each other to create a zero-footprint concrete mix. Fortunately ours improves it by so much already, so we are already taking up a bulk of that emissions reduction.
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(9:10) You mentioned earlier that the formula in the industry hasn't changed for generations. This industry must be highly established. How has it been to break into such an "old boys club"?
I think our initial introduction came through accelerator programs. We participated in a Lafarge Holcim accelerator that took place in France back in 2018. That's when we pivoted from CO2 additives to focusing on the concrete and construction space. Through this accelerator program, we got connected with Lafarge Canada, and worked our way up the chain by talking to different decision makers. It's a slow process, but our company's technical foundation roots us in the facts and ensures we hit the markers put in place by the labs at Lafarge. We've had the lead technical validator for Lafarge Western Canada give our product the stamp of approval, but we've had to be very diligent in our technical validation. That's helped us move through these large, slow, risk averse companies and get them to take on such a new and innovative technology.
(11:29) One thing that must have gotten you a lot of exposure was the XPrize. Can you tell us about what that is and what it meant for you?
XPrize is an organization that helps put together consortia, bringing a pool of minds together and attracting startups in the early R&D stages by giving them a platform. We participated in the carbon XPrize, supported by NRG Energy and COSIA. We completed a series of rigorous applications and were selected as a top 10 finalist in 2018! This gave us a facility to operate at a carbon capture site that's connected to a natural gas power plant. The emissions from this plant are funneled to the carbon capture unit, where we can then utilize it to make our additives. This has enabled us to test our technology on a large scale. We've been able to go from processing 2 grams to using a reactor that processes 20 tons of material per day, which we couldn't have done without the XPrize. This helped us capture the attention of Lafarge Western Canada, who we supply our material to so they can use it in things like sidewalks, driveways, and even single story foundations now.
While we didn't win first place, we were awarded the X-Factor award, which recognized our ability as a team to take our technology from a small scale to a semi-commercial operation over the course of two years. This was possible because of the technical validation behind our product.
(15:15) So you're selling the product, but you're not in the advanced commercial stage yet. What are your goals for growth?
Yeah! We just completed a bridge financing round of $5 million USD that will enable us to expand our team and start bringing our technology to the commercial scale. 20 tons per day may seem like a lot, but it's very small in the concrete world. There are billions of tons of concrete laid every year, so we need to hit a much larger volume to see real carbon reduction impacts across the world. Our current processes are designed for the 20 ton scale, but we're working with an engineering company right now to take that from 20 tons to 200 tons per day! That will give us much larger access to the market, and prove our technology can work at scale.
(17:11) Tell me more about your business model. Are you planning to license this technology, or are you intending to build plants across North America (and eventually the world)?
In our early stages we're going to have to develop and build the technology on a larger scale ourselves. The larger players do not have the risk tolerance to take this on themselves. Because of the way transportation and logistics work for the concrete industry, this production has to be local. One thing we're seeing is the supply of the common additives used in concrete is low in North America, forcing producers to order shipments from places like India and Japan, causing a HUGE carbon footprint. What our technology can do is take a low-grade material (not meeting current regulations) and enhance it with CO2 to get it approved for use in concrete because we give it the strength and durability that enables these materials to perform better than before. This expands the capacity of these strained supply chains that are relying on imported additives.
(19:45) I know these are early days, but are there any lessons you've learned along the journey of Carbon Upcycling?
The number one piece of advice would be to build a strong network of advisors early on. Leveraging their expertise and advice would have helped us a lot in the early stages. The other thing, especially for a small company like ourselves, is to be selective in what programs you apply for and how you allocate your time. Looking back, we may have spent too much time on some less valuable programs.
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