The Big Interview with Mike Eberlin
In the next of Seratech’s Big Interview series, we set out to understand why Mike Eberlin was drawn to working with Seratech, and why he believes this startup will succeed in its mission to help decarbonise the construction industry.
Former Managing Director of Tarmac Cement & Lime and chair of MPA Cement, Mike Eberlin, became Seratech’s business advisor in June this year. He was intrigued by the novel technology Sam Draper and Barney Shanks had uncovered.
As we begin to talk, Mike is quick to point out there are two big advantages to Seratech: “They are using magnesium silicate as a starting material which produces silica as a cement replacement and magnesium oxide which can then absorb CO2”.
The CO2 absorption is what fascinates Mike as the type of magnesium carbonate Seratech produces is a "slightly unstable" version which when cured, becomes stable and reverts to the rock-like substance you would find in nature. "This came as a surprise because the chemistry wouldn’t indicate that was possible,” he explains.
Following this discovery, and as Seratech’s research progressed, it soon became apparent that the magnesium carbonate lends itself well as a binder and can be used in applications like building blocks and plasterboard: “It’s effectively carbon capture and use, not carbon capture and storage because you are mineralising the CO2 into a product.
“We end up in this clever situation whereby it’s not that we don’t emit the CO2, it’s better than that, we absorb CO2 and create two binders that replace cement”.
"We are getting to the point where we can’t take much more CO2 out using existing technologies”.
With a background in chemical engineering, Mike is quick to emphasise the importance of the technical side of the process: “Seratech has not only got the chemistry but the thermodynamics mean the energy requirement is quite low - it truly is a low energy, low carbon solution.
“Everyone talks about magnesium or calcium silicate being an alternative to limestone. Getting that calcium ion or magnesium ion in a form that can be used in cement without emitting carbon dioxide is the holy grail but often the process is too costly and does not work at scale. Seratech has, in effect, invented a new low-cost way of doing this at scale.”
As a former CEO of major cement companies, over the past 20 years Mike’s had people “knocking on his door”, trying to sell low emission cement and concrete. But as he says, most of them are “embellishing the truth” around how sustainable their product really is.
He points out that decarbonising cement is not a novel process. Between 1990 and 2020 the cement industry in the UK decarbonised by 35% on a per unit basis and since then lots of work has been done to find replacements in concrete so that the amount of CO2 is constantly reducing. He explains: “We are now emitting 65 to 70 percent of CO2 per tonne that we were emitting in 1990 - most countries are on that path - but you can only go so far”.
By this, Mike means the cement industry is at a stage where much of the technology it has relied upon to decarbonise so far, has reached the limit of its ability. He uses fly ash as an example citing that it is no longer available because we’ve shut down all the coal power stations. He says GGBS [Ground Granulated Blast-Furnace Slag] is “the best candidate at the moment” but that too is a waste product from steel production and is also reducing over time.
“This is why we need companies like Seratech. We are getting to the point where we can’t take much more CO2 out using existing technologies”.
While Mike is excited by what Seratech has to offer, Seratech in equal measure is delighted to be benefitting from Mike’s experience of running large corporations and smaller ventures too.
“I’ve spent time in the corporate world with the big players like CRH, Tarmac and Heidelberg but I’ve also interspersed that with running small companies. I have that MD / CEO understanding of the structure of the market – how it works, who the customers are and what drives them. That is important for a company like Seratech who is trying to get into the market with a novel product.
“I understand the challenges of running small companies, what the VCs are looking for and what you need to do to deliver. I’ve set up my own company, raised capital and sold it”.
The next step for Seratech will be to raise finance and build a pilot plant. For the moment the product works at lab scale but “we need to create bigger samples so we can put those into the industry, let customers play with them and get validation through the industry. After this, we would go onto industrial scale”.
Mike acknowledges that all this talk of lowering carbon emissions might sound “odd” coming from somebody who’s managed companies that have emitted 2 to 3 million tonnes of CO2 per year: “I’ve been very conscious of that and it’s one of the reasons I want to do something around sustainability and climate change. I believe it’s something we absolutely must sort out. My commitment is to focus the next ten years at looking at ways I can help by using the knowledge I’ve got around cement, concrete and lime to contribute to the solutions we desperately need”.