Prometheus Supplies has an answer for changing one of many greatest contributors of greenhouse gasses, monetary backing from Microsoft and an aggressive plan to scale up shortly.
By Amy Feldman, Forbes Workers
We love concrete. We use it all over the place — skyscrapers, information facilities, roofs, sidewalks, properties. The issue is, concrete doesn’t love us. Its key ingredient, cement, is the supply of 8% of the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide, a gasoline that’s catastrophically warming the planet. However how can we exchange a fabric that’s so cheap, so sturdy and so well-liked?
Prometheus Supplies has an intriguing reply. The College of Colorado spinout is popping algae into cement utilizing a course of that’s just like how coral and seashells naturally kind. “Local weather change is probably an existential downside, and we’re discovering that nature could have supplied us with the keys to an answer,” says Loren Burnett, the corporate’s cofounder and CEO.
Prometheus remains to be within the early phases of commercialization with minimal income from a take a look at facility in Longmont, Colorado, close to Boulder. But it surely’s discovered the science and is now elevating what Burnett expects can be between $15 million and $35 million in enterprise funding (plus extra mission financing) to construct a 35,000-square-foot manufacturing unit to make at the least a half-dozen totally different kinds of precast, bio-concrete merchandise, together with blocks, panels and pavers.
Burnett expects that the mixture of the manufacturing unit’s manufacturing and a licensing technique that can permit it to promote its bio-based materials in powdered kind to producers worldwide will assist it attain $75 million in income by 2027. “The important thing right here is that we’ll leverage the massive producers of cement and concrete utilizing their manufacturing and distribution amenities,” he says.
That’s a giant quantity, however even when Prometheus reaches that aim it’s barely a drop within the bucket for the greater than $300 billion international cement trade. That helps clarify why Prometheus is one in every of a variety of startups now making an attempt to sort out the laborious downside of cement.
Biomason, for instance, has developed an analogous solution to develop cement bricks and tiles with micro organism. Terra CO2, with a unique low-carbon various to cement, has raised cash from Invoice Gates’ Breakthrough Vitality Ventures. Brimstone Vitality is working to commercialize carbon-negative cement and is constructing a pilot plant close to Reno, Nevada with backing from enterprise agency DCVC. All three have gained extra enterprise funding than Prometheus, with Brimstone elevating $60 million, Biomason $87 million and Terra CO2 $99 million, in accordance with venture-capital database PitchBook.
Gates, who wrote a ebook known as Learn how to Keep away from a Local weather Catastrophe, has known as out the determined must provide you with a cleaner and reasonably priced various to cement to struggle local weather change. Cement is a significant producer of greenhouse gasses each due to the chemical response that creates it and the fossil fuels required to warmth the kilns the place it’s produced. “We don’t have a means of doing it that’s clear, that doesn’t price dramatically extra, greater than twice the worth,” he told NPR’s Marketplace in 2021. “So if folks suppose it’s simply passenger vehicles and electrical energy, they’re going to overlook what we have to do to get to zero.”
To deliver the cement trade in keeping with the Paris Settlement on local weather change, its annual emissions would wish to drop by at least 16% by 2030, at the same time as cement manufacturing is slated to extend, in accordance with a 2018 report by the London-based suppose tank Chatham Home. “This downside is so large it’s going to take all of us being wildly profitable,” Burnett says of his firm and its rivals. “In every single place you look, you’re going to see concrete. It’s ubiquitous.”
Petri Dish Days
4 College of Colorado Boulder teachers, Jeff Cameron, Sherri Cook, Mija Hubler and Wil Sruber — all Prometheus cofounders and advisors — stumbled onto the thought whereas looking for an answer to a unique downside.
They’d obtained a $2.4 million grant from the Division of Protection’s analysis arm in 2017 to see if they might use biology to supply protecting buildings in deserts and different distant environments with tough terrain. “They knew they couldn’t fly in concrete as a result of it’s too heavy, they usually knew they didn’t wish to truck it in over massive expanses of hostile territory,” Burnett says. “So if they might use native supplies to supply hardened buildings to guard troops and high-value navy property, that’s what they wished to do.”
The researchers started testing micro organism in petri dishes to see what they might provide you with. At first they labored with ureolytic micro organism, which had been studied for civil engineering applications, however they finally switched to cyanobacteria, generally referred to as blue-green algae, which will get its power from photosynthesis. As they delved deeper, the Protection Division requested them to make slightly two-by-two dice of the fabric. “We realized shortly that a variety of the challenges we needed to tackle had been within the scale-up,” Hubler says.
As we speak, the corporate grows its algae in slender 1,350-liter tanks with synthetic seawater that’s filled with vitamins, bubbled air to supply carbon dioxide and LED lights to imitate daylight. Prometheus harvests the algae and places it in a separate tank and, utilizing a proprietary course of, stimulates what’s known as biomineralization — the formation of minerals into organic buildings. “That’s our secret sauce,” Burnett says. The result’s a slurry that it dries right into a powder and combines with proprietary pure binders to create a zero-carbon bio-cement. The fabric might be combined with the granular materials referred to as combination to kind bio-based concrete. The ultimate bio-concrete blocks look just about like these made with the trade customary, Portland cement.
Burnett, 66, a serial entrepreneur, beforehand based 5 corporations, 4 of which had been based mostly on tech switch from a college or a lab. In 2011, he created the now-dormant e-Chromic Applied sciences based mostly on expertise licensed from the Division of Vitality’s renewable power lab for a window expertise that mirrored infrared radiation again into the environment to cut back the necessity for air conditioners and cooling. “That’s the place I acquired bitten by the decarbonization bug,” he says.
In February 2021, the College of Colorado’s tech-transfer workplace related Burnett with the 4 professors, and the subsequent month they based the corporate collectively.
The early phases of a college spinout are robust as a result of tutorial researchers can’t use their faculty labs for industrial work, however elevating cash takes extra than simply theoretical proof that the expertise works. Cameron arrange a basement lab in his home with fish tanks and effervescent equipment bought from pet shops. “We had been sending samples to a few of our buyers that me and my youngsters really made,” Cameron says.
A yr later, the startup raised $8 million in enterprise funding led by European life sciences agency Sofinnova Companions that included strategic buyers Microsoft, architectural agency Skidmore Owings & Merrill and roofing large GAF. That enabled Prometheus to start out pilot tasks.
In a video, Microsoft president Brad Smith calls out the necessity for brand new improvements in concrete to deliver down greenhouse gasoline emissions, singling out Prometheus and one other firm wherein it’s invested, CarbonCure. “At Microsoft, we take into consideration this rather a lot as a result of a variety of concrete goes into our campuses and information facilities,” he says within the video. Prometheus has since finished a prototype mission with Microsoft, which is constructing a whole bunch of information facilities worldwide annually. “After we spend money on rising applied sciences, we have a look at if that is feasibly mainstream by 2030,” says Brandon Middaugh, senior director of the Microsoft Local weather Innovation Fund, noting that the 2030 deadline of the Paris Settlement not appears so distant. “We see the potential is there, and there’s a pathway to scale for them.”
‘The Bleeding Edge’
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the worldwide architectural agency identified for skyscrapers that embrace the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest constructing on this planet, and New York’s One World Commerce Heart, had additionally been searching for methods to cut back its carbon footprint with new supplies. 4 years in the past, it started establishing partnerships with corporations that would assist, says Brant Coletta, managing companion and head of the agency’s international analysis and innovation crew. In its partnership with Prometheus, it examined bio-materials to see if they might meet specs for issues like power and fireplace resistance. Working with masons, it constructed mockups and left them outdoor to see what would possibly occur when uncovered to the weather, then sprayed them with cleaners for extra testing. “We’re pushing them, they usually’re pushing themselves, to get previous all these checks so we will get to pouring concrete in skyscrapers,” Coletta says. “They’re on the bleeding fringe of this.”
In February, Prometheus obtained industry certifications for each load-bearing and non-load-bearing blocks, an vital step because it strikes to commercialization. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill retains items of the bio-concrete in its workplaces world wide for purchasers to see, and plans to exhibit a spiral-shaped sculpture on the Chicago Structure Biennial this fall. Whereas which will sound fancy, Coletta expects that the primary main buyer can be a knowledge heart.
There’s rather a lot that also has to occur to get Prometheus’ bio-cement into actual tasks, and the dangers stay excessive. First it wants to boost the funds to construct the manufacturing unit, which it expects to rise up and working in 2024, after which it wants to point out it will probably efficiently produce supplies at a value prospects can pay. It should additionally must get its bio-cement previous extra testing, and persuade main concrete producers to take an opportunity. Burnett, who figures that the corporate can be producing at capability and establishing licensing agreements by 2025, is set.
“Now we have to decarbonize each cement and metal if we’re going to be at web zero by 2050,” he says. “The mathematics simply doesn’t work with out these two issues taking place.”
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