WHO IS ASPIRING MATERIALS?
Aspiring Materials is a mineral conversion company based in Ōtautahi Christchurch Aotearoa New Zealand who has developed a process that can capture and abate carbon dioxide emissions from heavy industry using ultramafic rocks.
The company was founded by geologist Dr. Christopher Oze and civil engineer Dr. Allan Scott after a decade of collaborative scientific research into developing construction materials that could be produced from the scarce resources available on Mars.
Today, the focus is all about Earth, pivoting years of research and experience towards carbon removal and abatement in heavy industry, using a commonly-found abundant rock that contains the mineral olivine. Their patent-pending technology captures carbon dioxide emissions and locks it away permanently in a naturally occurring solid - magnesium carbonate.
The process to capture carbon emissions is net zero; it's a circular system and, in addition to carbon capture, useful by-products are produced that can be used to further abate and supplement emissions-intensive materials - silica, iron, and hydrogen. These materials are already essential in the steel, concrete and energy industries and demand will only increase as the world transitions to a low-carbon economy.
Seed investors Icehouse Ventures and Outset Ventures supported Aspiring Materials in 2021 as they began their commercial operation. In August 2023, lead investor Motion Capital, joined by Icehouse Ventures, invested additional funds to help the company accelerate the design and build of a pilot plant in New Zealand that would enable scaling their proof of concept to industrial application.
How is Aspiring Materials using rocks to capture carbon?
Aspiring Materials’ patent-pending process breaks down ultramafic rocks - usually olivine-rich rocks - into mineral products including magnesium hydroxide (Mg(OH)2), silica (SiO2), and iron (Fe). When water (H2O) is added to the magnesium hydroxide, a chemical reaction occurs in which carbon dioxide is pulled in by the magnesium hydroxide, creating a carbonate (magnesium carbonate, MgCO3). It’s this reaction that durably bonds the CO2 to the magnesium.
How much magnesium hydroxide does it take to capture 1 tonne of carbon dioxide?
With the Aspiring Materials technology, 1.3 tonnes of magnesium hydroxide (Mg(OH)2) is needed to capture one tonne of CO2. What’s important here is how this stacks up against some of the current carbon-capture options:
48 mature trees growing for 1 year will capture 1 tonne of CO2.
65 tonnes of CO2-cured cement will capture 1 tonne of CO2.
190 tonnes of rock material used in ‘enhanced weathering’ technologies will capture 1 tonne of CO2.
Just over 2 tonnes of olivine rock will capture 1 tonne of CO2.
What impact can the other mineral products produced through the Aspiring Materials process (silica, iron, & hydrogen) have on CO2 emissions reduction?
For every tonne of these clean supplementary materials we produce, a total of up to 1 tonne of carbon dioxide emissions can be avoided. These minerals have value as input materials to heavy industry: for example, iron is valuable to the steel industry; silica can be used in cement production; and hydrogen for clean energy. When produced through our process, these materials can displace existing materials used in heavy industry production, negating the need for high-emissions manufacture or extraction and therefore avoiding the emissions generated through those traditional methods.
What waste does this process produce?
Our process is closed loop and produces negligible waste. Firstly, we use the entire rock with all the individual mineral components able to be applied in many different ways that curb carbon dioxide emissions. Secondly, as part of the process, the hydrogen produced creates a self-sustaining energy source for the process. Lastly, the acids and bases used in the process to separate the mineral components do not leave the system–they are used over and over again.
What’s the difference between point-source and direct-air capture?
Point-source capture refers to the process of capturing carbon dioxide before it enters the environment, often in an industrial setting. Direct-air capture draws down carbon dioxide emissions already present in the atmosphere.
What are ultramafic rocks?
Ultramafic rocks are rich in magnesium and iron and can be both igneous (solidified molten rock) and metamorphic (heated and pressurised rock). Ultramafic rocks originate from Earth’s mantle and have made their way to the surface over geologic time by way of volcanoes and other geologic processes.
Is this an entirely novel technology?
No, scientists have known for some time that olivine is able to draw in carbon dioxide through a natural reaction between the olivine, carbon dioxide and water. But that happens over aeons and, until now, accelerating this process has required a lot of energy, generally meaning more emissions were created than were sequestered. Aspiring Materials has just taken inspiration from this natural process and found a way to accelerate it without generating any further emissions.
Does this process mean we need to mine for the rocks?
Not yet. Olivine is the most abundant mineral on earth. It’s true that most of it is still underground but it’s on the order of trillions of tonnes. Today, there is a huge amount of olivine-rich rock already on or being brought to Earth’s surface through other mining activities (for rare earth metals for example). It is seen as a low-value waste-rock material, commonly used as roading aggregate or in steel production. As an example of accessible volume, in NZ alone already around 1⁄2 million tonnes of olivine is being extracted each year from just one existing operation. So the good news is that there is no need to break new ground for at least the next five years.
When will this technology be running at an industrial scale?
As soon as possible! Right now, Aspiring Materials are seeking capital investment of up to $10M to build a pilot plant that operates at industrial scale.