Michael Priestnall, CTO of Cambridge Carbon Capture
Shell Springboard 2011 Award winner, Cambridge Carbon Capture, is developing a unique electrochemical CO2-mineralisation technology to tackle the global problems of cheaply converting fossil fuels to carbon-free electricity and sequestering carbon dioxide safely and permanently. CTO, Michael Priestnall (pictured), had the initial idea that the natural carbon-silicate cycle – in which limestone is formed from the reactions of carbon dioxide with volcanic rocks – could be executed very rapidly and efficiently using a fuel cell.
CCC’s process generates clean electricity by converting CO2 and magnesium or calcium containing wastes or minerals into solid carbonate construction materials and by-product metals and minerals. The value of these products, coupled with the high efficiency, low capital costs and scaleability of CCC’s technology make CO2-mineralisation a far more attractive option than separation, compression and underground storage of CO2. Target markets include power stations, industrial point sources of CO2 and the materials, mining, minerals and waste process industries.Based at IdeaSpace on the West Cambridge University site, CCC partnered with the University to prove the technical viability of their technology and last year the team was joined by, CEO, Dr Robin Francis, former CEO of Voler Energy plc.1. What is the potential global value of the market segment you are targeting?Over the long-term we are targeting the whole of the industrial and power generation market for carbon capture and storage. DECC has said the global CCS market will be worth $5 trillion over the next 40 years. More immediately, we are targeting the materials, mining and waste sectors – the scope there for our services and product materials is huge – the aggregates segment alone is valued today at £300 billion per year.2. How much market validation have you been able to achieve to date?If we judge that by the quality of enquiries we have had from industrial companies, then we are pretty confident there is a market now for CCC’s technology. Another good indicator is the investment that companies like Alcan and Shell have made in developing and beginning to commercialise their own versions of mineral carbonation.3. Are the partnerships with industrial partners that you were pursuing bearing fruit and if so how?Industrial partnerships are our main route to process and product development, and revenues, for the next few years. We are helping customers to understand the benefits and to qualify the technical feasibility of mineral carbonation in their specific applications. They are showing us where to focus our technology development and what business models will be successful.4. What differentiates your technology from that of competitors?Profit. Of course our technology is patented & our electrochemical approach is a clear differentiator, but it’s our ability to make CO2 capture profitable for industry to do without subsidy and the driving effect that will have on speeding the uptake that is unique.5. What is your investment profile?We don’t have any external investors and we are very grateful to Cambridge Enterprise, EEDA, Renewables East, Shell and the Technology Strategy Board for the development funding they have provided.6. Do you have sufficient funding to commercialise your technology?We are a lean business and doing our initial development out of revenues, leveraging grants and working with expert RTO partners. This might not be as fast a growth route as a major investment & recruitment round could enable, but it is sustainable and will get us there without financial risk. With the right industrial partners we think we can commercialise our technology at least as quickly.7. Do you think VCs understand your technology specifically and GreenTech plays in general?VCs generally understand GreenTech plays very well. However, often the timescales to develop GreenTech businesses are not compatible with the VC business model. There are a few exceptional VCs or Angels with the long-term vision and financial resource to allow a GreenTech venture the run-time and strategic partnerships necessary to accelerate its development and enter the market successfully. We’re interested in explaining our proposition to those kind of VC investors, but otherwise we are focusing on generating revenues and partnerships with industrial customers.8. What products are we likely to see come out of the Cambridge Carbon Capture portfolio initially and over time?We have our development plan mapped out to 2015. Right now we are helping customers – mostly in the waste, mineral, process and fossil energy sectors – who want to understand how using mineral carbonation technologies can give them a strategic business advantage in their own particular applications. That can involve lab bench work to assess their feedstock materials, through to designing and building specific mineral carbonation processes for them. In the longer term – and that could be five to 10 years away – we expect to be servicing the CCS needs of large-scale fossil power generators around the globe. That means not just taking the CO2 in their flue gases and locking it down with feedstock materials into construction aggregates, cement and high-value mineral & metal by-products, but also managing those materials and providing some of the new high-efficiency fuel cell based power generation capacity for that market.9. What issues keep you awake at night?40 years ago I was learning about power stations emissions, energy security and global warming at school. 20 years ago we had Kyoto. Progress is slow because of economic drivers, not lack of GreenTech, so I’m betting on CCC providing that economic incentive.10. If a corporate genie granted you three wishes for the business what would you wish for?Wish No.1 would be for DECC and for the EU to open up their multi-billion pound CCS demonstration budgets to technologies like ours. At the moment the entry rules exclude mineral carbonation because we don’t store CO2 underground. 2 – Right now, at this early stage of our business and our technology, I’d wish for a major sponsor to seriously back the focused research, development and demonstration that we need to deliver on the game-changing potential for mineral carbonation. Wish No.3 would be for a fast and smooth and superbly successful development course for our technology – pioneering new science and engineering always has its ups and downs, so if your genie could kindly let us just have the ups please!