By Erik Kobayashi-Solomon
Picture the Pantheon in Rome. Considering that it was built in CE 128, it has held together remarkably well under the footsteps of hundreds of millions of visitors over the centuries. If the ancient Romans could build something so long-lasting, why on earth do our modern roads have so many potholes?
The answer lies in the Romans’ ingenious, self-healing concrete—the science of which was recently revealed by researchers at MIT.
Now, a team out of Texas and Utah, Eco Material Technologies, is building on ancient Rome’s know-how with advances in modern material science to create a strong, erosion-resistant, and quick-setting concrete that practically eliminates carbon emissions associated with what has always been known as a “hard-to-abate” industry.
Eco Material Technologies is a high-tech cement company—a combination of words that seems incongruous but is nonetheless completely appropriate.
The company has a goal of reducing and eventually eliminating the 8% of global carbon emissions stemming from the production of cement, which acts as the key ingredient in our civilization’s most important building material: concrete.
Eco Material was co-founded by John T. Preston—a respected leader from MIT’s licensing office—is led by Grant Quasha—a Harvard-educated businessman with a deep history in materials businesses—and received funding from a consortium of smart-money private equity players.
The company’s technology allows for what would otherwise be hazardous landfill material—the ash waste of coal-fired power plants—to be treated in such a way as to create a strong, durable, and quick-setting cement that has already proven itself on the sun-drenched highways of Texas. The amazing thing about Eco Material’s technology from a climate perspective is that it avoids virtually all the carbon emissions related to manufacturing cement—a big win in the fight to restore our planet’s carbon cycle imbalance.
If this sounds like a company you would like to invest in, hold on. Quasha expects the firm to IPO within the next few years.
Eco Material People and History
Eco Material was formed in 2022, the product of a bold, private-equity backed buyout of the North American assets of Australian firm Boral Ltd.—an operation with decades of history in the States—by an innovative Texas start-up called Green Cement. Green Cement had been developing low- and zero-carbon cement technology for over a decade.
The private equity groups involved in the buyout are smart money players—One Equity Partners (formerly part of J.P. Morgan) and global private equity giant, Warburg Pincus.
Green Cement’s CEO at the time of Eco Material’s founding, Grant Quasha, is a Harvard grad twice over and is a seasoned executive with deep experience in materials and in infrastructure investing.
The Boral assets that Quasha’s venture acquired were focused on the management and harvesting of “fly ash”—a byproduct of the coal combustion process that has long been used as a component of many concrete blends. Boral’s history goes back decades, and you can think of it as the Old Economy pillar of the Eco Material house.
The Green Cement side of the business was co-founded in 2010 by John T. Preston, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur who previously ran technology licensing at MIT and worked there as the interface between research and industry for 30 years. Preston has said that he has founded something like 300 companies and that he believed the concept and impact of Green Cement was so attractive, he became CEO of the company at its founding. The Green Cement part of the business forms Eco Material’s high-tech pillar.
The merger of Green Cement and Boral’s North American assets was also partly funded by the issuance of a green bond based on Eco Material Technology’s ability to reduce cement-related carbon emissions.
Eco Material’s Technology
To appreciate the astounding breakthrough made by Eco Material, it’s helpful to understand something about cement in general.
You can think of cement as something like powdered glue (civil engineers call it a “binding agent”). Mix that powdered glue with sand and pebbles (known as “aggregates” in the business) and add water and you create a very handy synthetic stone that can be poured like gravy in any shape you like. This moldable, synthetic stone is so handy that it has its own name: Concrete.
Concrete, you might be surprised to learn, is the second most widely used substance on earth after H2O.
The most widely used binding material for concrete today is something known as Ordinary Portland Cement (OPC). There are two important things to know about OPC. First, it is a very old technology—it was first invented around the time George Washington was cutting down cherry trees. Second, it is a very dirty technology from a carbon footprint perspective for reasons I discuss in the Climate Impact section below.
Eco Material has discovered an improved way to manufacture a low-carbon “pozzolanic cement” that is similar, but better, than the pozzolanic cement the Ancient Romans used. Pozzolans are a broad class of materials containing silica and alumina; the most commonly available commercial source of pozzolans is the fly ash that Boral’s business specialized in.
By themselves and without special treatment, pozzolans like fly ash possess almost no value as a cement component. However, one of the waste byproducts of the OPC manufacturing process is a compound that turns fly ash into a strong, durable cement when mixed with water. As such, fly ash has long been mixed with OPC to increase the durability of concrete produced with it. The carbon footprint of the pozzolanic portion of OPC is zero, so if you add 10% fly ash to OPC, you decrease the OPC’s carbon footprint by 10%.
One problem with adding fly ash is that there is only so much waste within OPC to react with, so the maximum amount of zero-carbon pozzolans able to be added to OPC was typically around 20 percent. Old Roman Cement used 100% pozzolans (mined from volcanoes) using a different manufacturing process. The problem with that type of pozzolanic cement is that it takes a long time to cure—that might have been okay for people without cars or email like Emperor Octavian but is not great for modern builders.
The big innovation pioneered by Green Cement and taken up now by Eco Material is a proprietary physical and chemical pre-treatment of fly ash that turns it into an excellent powdered glue and thus allows it to make up a much larger proportion of cement. The company says that, using its special process, the proportion of fly ash in cement can increase to between 50 and 100 percent.
Increasing the proportion of fly ash in cement mixtures by this much generates an enormous reduction of the carbon footprint of infrastructure projects using concrete—highways, airports, buildings, docks, etc. As the amount of fly ash increases, the concrete created with it is less water permeable, making it more durable and resistant to road salt and other erosive chemicals.
In an industry not usually associated with technological innovation, Eco Material’s product represents nothing less than a step-change revolution.
Climate and Environmental Impact
Eco Material’s innovation with regards to reduced carbon footprints should be obvious from the discussion above, but its fly ash harvesting business also enables impressive environmental benefits as well.
On the climate side, roughly 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions come from cement manufacturing. OPC is created by superheating limestone (CaCO3)—usually by burning coal—until its chemical bonds crack and the resultant chemicals combine with other compounds to form the powdered glue we know as cement.
Burning coal to heat the limestone actually generates only about half the carbon dioxide that cracking the limestone does. As such, even if heating the limestone could be done by a cleaner fuel (which is something like impossible) the very process of creating OPC would still create huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Currently, OPC manufacturing results in approximately one ton of CO2 emissions for every ton of cement produced.
No heating is involved in the manufacturing of Eco Material’s Green Cement, so no coal or other fossil fuels need to be burned. The use of fly ash as a feedstock eliminates the need to use limestone at all, let alone to superheat it.
The result of Eco Material’s innovation is that the company can manufacture a cement for use in strong, durable concrete that can reduce the carbon footprint associated with its production by an amazing 99%.
Considering the large footprint of cement manufacturing and the ubiquity of concrete in building projects the world over, this large of a reduction—if the process could be scaled and propagated globally as an industry best practice—would have a four times greater carbon footprint effect than the complete abolition of air travel.
Eco Material’s technology also confers some impressive ecological and public safety benefits as well. Eco Material is mining ash that otherwise would simply sit in landfills until the end of time and putting it to productive use. As such, it is turning a linear, Industrial Revolution paradigm model into a circular one.
Coal-fueled power plants burn coal and create electricity, CO2, and ash. More than 2 billion tons of ash have been disposed in the United States in landfills. Sometimes these ash reservoirs burst, as happened disastrously in Tennessee in 2008, so communities do not like them in their backyards. Electricity generators are under steadily increasing regulatory scrutiny regarding these ash ponds and landfills, which means steadily increasing operating costs for them.
Eco Material’s Boral acquisition gives it the ability to source fly ash from existing coal-fueled power plants and to harvest previously disposed ash at utility sites. For instance, Eco Material just announced an expanded partnership with Georgia Power to remove millions of tons of fly ash from two of their landfills for use in concrete – thereby permanently removing the ash from a disposal setting to manufacture the most important building material of the modern age.
This arrangement is good for Georgia Power, good for the health of the communities near the disposal sites, and once the ash is turned into Green Cement, good for the planet as well.
Eco Material’s Business
Eco Material’s main product line is a legacy of the Boral purchase that supplies fly ash from coal-fueled power plants to concrete producers nationwide. Through this activity, Eco Material calculates that it has brought about carbon reductions in the concrete sector on the order of 6 million tons per year for decades.
The Green Cement part of the business adds significant intellectual property to the process and allows for fly ash to be processed in a way that paves the way to a 100% OPC replacement.
Eco Material has been bringing the cost of production down with years of research and development, so now a cement that is 50% comprised of fly ash (which the company calls PozzoSlag) is priced the same as unalloyed OPC. Because of the greenhouse gas reduction discussed above, projects that Eco Material has already done with the Department of Transportation in my old home state of Texas—have generated half the carbon footprint they would have 20 years ago simply because they used PozzoSlag as a cement.
The 100% fly ash mixture—which the company calls PozzoCEM—is a premium product, costing a little more than three times what OPC costs. While that price compares favorably to competitors’ products, Quasha believes that PozzoCEM will become cost-competitive with OPC over time.
The company’s new premium product cures so quickly and is so erosion resistant and safe, it is currently being used to create 3D-printed houses near Austin, Texas.
There has been a lot of money flowing into low carbon footprint cement manufacturers lately, but the elegance of Eco Material’s solution awes me. Especially when I consider the case of the developing world—heavy reliance on coal-fired power plants coupled with huge infrastructure building projects—Eco Material’s solution looks like it has the potential to provide a huge win on multiple fronts.
The fact that Eco Material provides a product that is superior to legacy offerings in every way—in terms of functionality, price, and reduced carbon footprint—makes its solution very attractive. Teslas are great—they accelerate like Formula 1 racers—until the batteries run out when you’re between cities. In contrast, Eco Material’s products offer nothing but positives as far as I can see.
Quasha and his team know, as I know, that we need to start radically rethinking our approach to infrastructure and radically reducing our carbon footprint if we are to continue building highways into the next century.
Intelligent investors take note.
Mia Kobayashi-Solomon and Martha Martins contributed to this article.