Interview with Aaron Fitzgerald, Co-Founder & CEO at Mars Materials #54
Storing carbon in everyday products
I’m excited to introduce you to Aaron Fitzgerald, Co-Founder and CEO of Mars Materials! Mars is on a mission to store carbon in everyday products, like carpets, electronics, carbon fibers, and wastewater treatment chemicals.
In this interview, we’ll cover the founding story of Mars Materials, the Mars nitrilation process, Aaron’s advice for spinning out technology from research institutions, Mars’ market entry strategy, and much more!
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🔒Permanent carbon sinks
Our humankind must start to remove CO2 from the atmosphere at a gigaton scale to stay under 2°C, not to mention under 1.5°C. According to UNEP, We need to yearly remove 10 gigatons of CO2 by 2050 and then ramp up to 20 Gt of CO2 by 2100 to limit the warming below 2°C. (Read more about carbon removal technologies on Survivaltech.club’s deep dive here).
Carbon capture also plays an important role in tackling the climate crisis. Carbon capture technologies capture CO2 from concentrated CO2 outputs like flue gases. (Read more about how Seabound captures CO2 from ship funnels from Survivaltech.club’s interview with Alisha, Seabound’s Co-Founder and CEO.)
Once the CO2 is removed or captured from the atmosphere, it has to be stored somewhere. The CO2 can be stored, for example, in deep geological formations or by turning it into stable carbonates. Mars Materials offers another permanent carbon sequestration pathway.
🌎Mars Materials’ solution
Mars Materials (“Mars”) is a Bay Area-based startup on a mission to store CO2 into long-lived everyday products.
Mars Materials sequesters CO2 in products like carpets, electronics, carbon fibers, and wastewater treatment chemicals. They aim to turn products that we all know and love into permanent carbon sinks.
🧠Wisdom from Aaron
What's the founding story of Mars Materials?
I got involved in climate after witnessing the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and how it impacted people who look like me and have similar backgrounds, black and from impoverished communities.
For a decade, I took my own small personal steps to be a better steward of the environment. In 2017, I took a perspective-changing trip to Lake Tahoe, where I read an article that really highlighted how I could do more as a climate-concerned person. Shortly after that, I sought opportunities that could help me personally scale my impact beyond what I was doing for myself. That eventually led me to start Mars Materials, focusing solely on industrial decarbonization and greenhouse gas utilization.
What does Mars Materials do?
Mars is a public benefit corporation that was founded with the charter to commercialize technologies that remove and sequester greenhouse gases. We focus on sustainably creating the same materials we all know and use every day.
Mars’ first product is a compound called acrylonitrile. It is estimated that every person on the planet consumes about one kilogram of it per year.
The conventional acrylonitrile production process is very emissions-intensive and uses crude oil as the starting raw material. Furthermore, the production of acrylonitrile creates byproducts, such as hydrogen cyanide and acetonitrile, harmful to the environment and people’s health.
Our acrylonitrile production process creates a direct drop-in replacement for conventional acrylonitrile. We have designed the process under green chemistry principles, meaning that we don’t use fossil fuels as a raw material and only produce trace impurities.
Our acrylonitrile and future green chemistry products also act as carbon sinks. We use captured CO2 as an input to our process. Since we produce long-lived and durable end-products, our process effectively creates carbon sinks.
Acrylonitrile is a precursor for many products. Which markets do you sell your products into, and how did you choose these markets?
We’re selling our first products to wastewater treatment and carbon fiber markets.
Wastewater treatment uses polyacrylamide, a polymerized version of acrylamide. Acrylamide, in turn, is derived from acrylonitrile, a chemical we produce. Most people don't realize that the water we drink daily is purified with fossil fuel-derived chemicals. Wastewater treatment offers a particularly lucrative opportunity for us, as secondary and tertiary wastewater treatment technologies are growing around the world.
Carbon fibers are derived mostly from polyacrylonitrile, a polymerized version of acrylonitrile. Carbon fibers are inherently permanent materials, thus, offering an interesting, permanent CO2 sequestration pathway. Carbon fibers also enable several strategic decarbonization use cases. For example, carbon fiber can be used to replace steel, a highly carbon-intensive material, to make lightweight cars, transmission lines, hydrogen storage tanks, and building materials. Today, the adoption of carbon fiber for these use cases is limited due to the high cost of carbon fiber.
We chose wastewater treatment as our beachhead due to its short time to market, as we discovered there is an immediate and growing demand for renewable acrylonitrile in these products. As our second target market, we selected carbon fiber because of its suitability as a carbon sink and its co-benefits as an industrial decarbonization tool.
How does your technology work? What benefits does it have over the conventional process?
At Mars, we’re developing process technology called nitrilation. The technology was invented by researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the only applied national lab in the US. The NREL researchers designed the nitrilation process using green chemistry principles so that the process can use various renewable feedstocks and only trace impurities.
The Mars process focuses on taking captured CO2 and bio-derived ethanol and converting those into acrylonitrile on a commercial scale.
Our process has three key technological advantages over the incumbent process known in industry as Standard Oil of Ohio (Sohio) process:
Independence from the crude oil market
Sustainable handling of ammonia
1. Independence from the crude oil market
Our process uses renewable feedstocks, so it is not tied to the volatile crude oil market. We can offer better price stability using CO2 and ethanol where prices are more stable. We’ve learned customers see this as an advantage.
2. Reduced CAPEX
The Mars nitrilation process is an endothermic reaction (a heat-absorbing chemical reaction). This form of chemical reaction means we don’t have to use specialized reactors and other unit operations. Thus, we can build smaller and less complicated processing units and also locate our units near our end customers or feedstock plants.
3. Sustainable handling of ammonia
Ammonia is an important input in the acrylonitrile process. In the incumbent Sohio process, the excess ammonia has to be injected into underground wells. This injection constraints the facility’s location and requires extensive permitting endeavors.
We use a solvent, which allows us to separate the ammonia from our acrylonitrile and water. We can then either reuse the separated ammonia and treat the leftover wastewater via industrial methods. Removing one additional hurdle in permitting and siting the plant.
As your products sequester CO2, do you earn revenue from selling carbon credits?
Our business model does not rely on carbon credits. We are focused on getting the whole value chain to work by achieving cost parity through scale and via competitive procurement practices.
Having said that, we are, of course, looking for ways to improve our techno economics and achieve cost parity with products made via traditional emissions-intensive and pollutive pathways. Carbon credits and tax credits can be very helpful in achieving these goals.
Mars Materials is a public benefit corporation. What responsibilities and opportunities does this bring to your company?
Being a public benefit corporation allows us to put our values at the center of operations and tie the values to our ability to do financially well. There are several requirements associated with being a public benefit corporation, such as annually reporting how we are performing against our chartered goals. From our perspective, these requirements allow us to focus on our vision, which is to commercialize technologies that remove and sequester greenhouse gases and not be dictated by the fickle whims of the market.
In my opinion, it is sad that we need public benefit corporations. We need a more inclusive and longer-term view of capitalism, where value is returned to all stakeholders in a business’s ecosystem, that includes employees, investors customers, and the community.
Mars Materials licensed its core technology from NREL. What advice do you have for founders who want to spin out research from national labs and universities?
I hope many more founders spin out research from labs! So many technologies get developed in the labs, but only a few get commercialized. Commercializing science is not the easiest pathway at the start, but the potential impact is often remarkable. For example, the US national lab system excels at creating technologies meant to achieve huge scale.
When approaching national labs as a startup founder, you can initially make them a little nervous. The national labs are used to working with larger corporations that can immediately reach a large distribution audience for their innovation, while a startup cannot offer that at the beginning. Despite this, there are a lot of opportunities for startups to show how being small, nimble, hungry, and dedicated can help move some technologies to the market.
My best advice is to find your entry points to the national labs. You can do so using programs like LabStart, which connected us to NREL. You can also be directly in contact with the labs - we submitted several requests for information to various national labs looking for technologies that would fit our vision for carbon removal and industrial decarbonization. I recommend checking out also the Lab Partnering Service.
When it comes time for negotiations, my advice is to make friends with your technology licensing officer. That person must convince their management team that you are the right commercialization partner. It is noteworthy to mention that national labs are looking at these partnerships as long-term, around 20 years.
At what stage are you at Mars Materials? How can the Survivaltech.club readers be helpful to you?
We are developing our pilot unit program. With that work, we are addressing some gaps we identified in our initial sample production. Our pilot unit program is funded by the Breakthrough Energy Fellows, which allows us to move quickly.
We're currently hiring for an Analytical Chemist and Commercialization Operations Intern. Later, we expect to also open business roles focused on our supply chain development. If you're interested in working with us in these roles or another way, reach out!
Mars has an exciting culture. As it was born a little before the pandemic, we had to learn how to have a true hybrid work environment. We are building a lab in the Bay Area, California, where engineers will meet and work, but all asynchronous work can be completed remotely.
We are committed to ensuring that everyone is welcome to work at Mars. Tackling the climate crisis is going to involve every person on this planet. People you agree with, people you disagree with, people who look like you, and people who don't. Every person can work on Mars. We require that you respect every person who does work here.
If you are interested in working at Mars Materials, check out the open positions and apply here!
I’d love to hear feedback and connect with fellow climate people! Contact me at email@example.com, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
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Always great to see Aaron and the Mars team getting much deserved recognition!