Interview with Seratech Founders Sam Draper and Barney Shanks as the company begins its first round of seed funding.
“Initially we were just going to do a couple of experiments, write an academic paper and leave it at that.”
In 2020, PhD students Sam Draper and Barney Shanks came up with the idea for Seratech over a Friday night pint at a west London pub. Both were doing PhDs at Imperial College and noticed a valuable overlap in the science they were researching.
Barney was focussed on mineral processing while Sam was looking into traditional cement replacement materials like limestone and GGBS (Ground Blast Furnace Slag). It was Sam who spotted the overlap in their work and asked Barney whether the silica derived from the mineral olivine, that Barney had produced as part of his research into magnesium-based cements, could be used to make a carbon-neutral cement mix?
“Initially we were just going to do a couple of experiments, write an academic paper and leave it at that,” Sam states, “but we got quite positive results and a really good performance for the concrete, so we decided to take it further and generate IP, protect the idea and commercialise the technology”.
In hindsight, Barney explains that it shouldn’t have really been a “surprise” to anyone that the idea worked: “people have been putting extra silicious materials into their Portland Cement for hundreds of years, but we were pleasantly surprised when it came off.”
What was perhaps more unique to Sam and Barney’s discovery was realising that the olivine by-product, magnesium, could be used as a carbon capture tool.
“The beauty of Seratech’s technology is that by using olivine, it generates three revenue streams.”
Seratech’s technology uses olivine rather than limestone as its base to decarbonise cement and concrete. “Olivine produces zero CO2, unlike limestone, the basis of Portland Cement, which emits CO2 from the decomposition of the mineral,” explains Barney.
“Seratech’s technology produces two compounds from olivine. One is a silica powder, or engineered pozzolan, which can be added to cement. The other is a magnesium carbonate binder. It gives us a two-pronged way to attack emissions in the built environment”.
“The beauty of Seratech’s technology is that by using olivine, it generates three revenue streams: carbon capture, carbon neutral concrete and income from the MagCarb binder into blocks, bricks and boards.
Sam points out that what Seratech does is very simple science “but it’s done with great attention to detail and a relentless focus on the real world. The way we do it is by minimizing energy and cost inputs. There are quite a few technologies looking at cement replacements and carbon sequestrations in olivine but it’s really the way it’s executed that gives us a key advantage”.
“The different experience and knowledge we have is a unique fit. And it has allowed us to really develop this product from raw material right up to its application in concrete”.
“If we can licence this technology to major industrial players who already have the capital to invest then we can make a real impact much faster”.
All Seratech’s work until now has been in the lab, but Barney and Sam are looking to scale up production and begin growth as a business.
“We hope that in the next five to ten years we will be licencing our tech out to big industrial emitters like cement kilns, brickworks or biomass power generation in order to help them sequester their emissions and produce the streams of materials to go directly into the construction industry,” explains Barney.
Sam adds that later this year they will be looking to build their first small scale pilot facility to give them verification of the process: “We’ll do that for two years and by 2026 or 2027 we’ll be looking at having our first full scale industrial facility. After this the plan would be to expand as fast as possible and really make a dent in CO2 emissions”.
If we can licence this technology to major industrial players who already have the capital to invest, then we can make a real impact much faster”.
“Ninety percent of future concrete use will probably be in Africa and Southeast Asia”.
“For climate change at large, we need a second industrial revolution where we move away from linear consumption of materials to something that is more regenerative and circular, more holistic looking. We have tried to do that with how we’ve designed our process.
“People are rethinking shifts happening in heavy industry. The aim is to get this technology to a point where it can be deployed at a global scale and not just mitigate a couple of tonnes of CO2 but millions or billions of tones and make that difference.
According to Sam, the use of concrete is so important for society. "Our entire society is built on concrete. As we know, the global south will be disproportionately affected by climate change which is something that needs to be prevented to the greatest extent possible, but they are also the countries that need more concrete to improve that quality of life. Ninety percent of future concrete use will probably be in Africa and Southeast Asia”.