Energy One Podcast, Episode 4 - Nitrilation with Mars Materials CEO Aaron Fitzgerald

December 22, 2023
18 minutes

Summary & Key Highlights

In this episode, we sit down with Aaron Fitzgerald, CEO and co-founder of Mars Materials, to learn about their work in nitrilation and modern carbon capture technology. Aaron shares how it all began, what fueled his desire to scale his impact on the environment and how it led to him founding Mars Materials — ultimately adopting this innovative carbon capture technology which transforms CO2 into sustainable products like acrylonitrile, used in a myriad of industries.

We explore how Mars Materials is not only advancing the carbon capture scene but also pursuing a strategic decarbonization plan and shaping a future where carbon pollution becomes more expensive than employing clean technologies. All whilst advocating for equality and inclusivity, especially in supporting underrepresented communities in the realm of entrepreneurship.

Our Guest Today: Aaron Fitzgerald

Aaron Fitzgerald, CEO and co-founder of Mars Materials, is at the forefront of industrial decarbonization. Inspired by the urgent need to address the escalating challenges of climate change, and motivated by a desire to extend his impact beyond individual actions, Aaron adopted a novel technology from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and has dedicated himself to commercializing and scaling it up to the industrial scene.

Mars Materials, under his leadership, is revolutionizing the way captured CO2 is utilized, turning it into valuable products while combating climate change. This episode offers a deep dive into Aaron's innovative work and his vision for a more sustainable future.

Interview with Aaron Fitzgerald about Mars Materials and Modern Carbon Capture Technology

How did it all begin? What led you to create Mars materials?

I'm Aaron Fitzgerald, I am a three time founder and current CEO and co founder of Mars materials. I'm also a current Breakthrough Energy innovator fellow. At Mars, we're working to store captured CO2, into and along with products, everyday products that we all know and love, from carpets, to keyboard keys and Lego blocks to carbon fibers.

Our goal is to turn all of these products into permanent carbon sinks. I personally got involved in climate after witnessing the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and how it impacted a lot of people who look like me and have similar backgrounds.

For about a decade of doing like my own self practice, took this life changing trip to Lake Tahoe in California, where I read an article that really highlighted how I as a climate concern person could do more. Pretty shortly after I looked for opportunities to help me scale my impact beyond just my own small personal steps that eventually led to founding Mars Materials. We call it Mars for short, which today it's solely focused on industrial, decarbonisation, and Greenhouse Gas Utilization.

What is the core technology that you guys are employing?

We make a carbon negative acrylonitrile or AN, you can say that 10 times fast if you're interested. AN is this monomer that's used as a pretty prominent chemical feedstock. It's used in everyday long lived durable products, like I've mentioned, keyboard keys, vacuum parts, carpets, but really important to Mars are wastewater treatment chemicals and carbon fiber. It's estimated that every person on the planet, that's you, that's me, we all consume about a kilogram of acrylonitrile per year.

We're specifically interested in acrylonitrile, because of our need to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. We see acrylonitrile as being a compound that can help to achieve these goals, specifically, enabling new markets for carbon fiber as a replacement for steel and currently our beachhead market, this material called acrylamide, which is used for wastewater treatment, chemicals, paper, pulp manufacturing, and hygiene goods.

How does this production method differ from those that are being commonly used today?

We're a completely different process. We sit at the nexus of carbon dioxide removal and industrial decarbonisation, and that's because our core technology called nitrilation enables us to utilize captured CO2, either from point sources or from the atmosphere. That is the key difference between our pathway and the incumbent route. We don't leverage fossil fuels.

There are several technological advantages to our acrylonitrile production pathway. Notably, we have fewer emissions, we're able to sequester nearly 1.85 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per kilogram of acrylonitrile produced.

In addition, we are also able to source our inputs like captured CO2 more locally, enabling more of a localized supply chain versus being so globally distributed, as is with the traditional petrochemical industry. And then finally, we have limited and less hazardous impurities, which allows us to think about more flexible, exciting opportunities for our plants. So we can build in places where it is just very difficult for the traditional technologies to build today.

All this enables us to grow a lower carbon acrylonitrile market, which is pretty nascent today, and kind of single kilotons per year of demand. But as expected to grow to hundreds of kilotons per year by the time we enter the market, in 2029.

Why you adopted nitrilation as the basis of your work?

Nitrilation is a really interesting technology for all of the key advantages against propylene ammoxidation to make a acrylonitrile. Acrylonitrile is a $14 billion chemical market and it has so many applications but we focus on strategic, decarbonisation applications.

For example, our initial beachhead is a market called acrylamide. It's about one and a half billion dollars in anticipated to double over the next seven years. Acrylonitrile is the sole raw material for acrylamide. You take acrylonitrile you bio convert it into acrylamide, and then that is further processed into various downstream products.

Acrylamide is used to help purify our drinking water. That means today, a lot of our water purification is actually being purified with fossil fuels. It's used to make paper products like corrugated cardboard and drinking cups. And it's also used for hygiene goods.

Another area where acrylonitrile is the sole raw material, is in polyacrylonitrile based carbon fiber. We see huge potential here where our technology can enable carbon fiber use as a replacement for emissions-intensive steel and applications like lightweighting for vehicles, transmission lines, hydrogen storage tanks and building parts.

We anticipate adding carbon fiber to vehicles will help to improve fuel efficiency. Or even in the case of battery electric vehicles can reduce the weight of the car so you can minimize the size of batteries. That allows us to reduce the demand on precious metals all to lead to that goal that I just kind of articulated of strategic decarbonisation, and in terms of vehicles for lightweighting.

That also gets us to what qualified us for the Breakthrough Energy Balance program, which is Giga 10, scale emissions reductions impact. That's all by enabling new markets for this particular chemical acrylonitrile.

What are some of the biggest challenges to you and your company have faced so far?

I would say anyone in climate knows that this is hard work, no doubt about it, and there are definitely a lot of challenges that we have to overcome daily. We have a lot of the same challenges as any other startup. You know, needing cash, needing to grow our team, needing to kind of build infrastructure where there isn't any to move forward, while we're also trying to move forward.

But where I think we're unique, is in our timeline to positive cumulative cash flow. It's anticipated that we will be a very profitable company, but in several years from now, by 2029. As you can imagine, that's very challenging to manage with investors, investors who have recently because of interest rate swings, began to prioritize more short term returns over the systematic change that we need to actually solve climate change.

To overcome this, we've made the choice to diversify our capital stack, and we look at VC or Venture Capital as a small part of our total capitalization plans to get to market. Outside of VC, we love grants, we love prize winnings, the best example of this is our fellowship for Breakthrough Energy, Bill Gates's climate arm. The Fellows Program is a program that recognizes that to reach our net zero goals by 2050 we just need these huge investments and technologies, and we need the patience to scale them up.

A lot of these processes, particularly as we're scaling them up to drive these costs down. Part of Breakthrough Energy's Fellows Progras was focused on addressing a lot of these critical gaps and specific technology areas. Carbon capture utilization storage, which is what we fall under: cement, electro fuels and other categories.

Do you hope to one day expand this to produce other precursors as well?

We got a long way to go. Our innovation framework involves us putting smart chemical engineers and clean tech commercialization experts on massive multi year stage, get it, technology development, and commercialization plans to execute. For now, all of those resources are really focused on scaling up nitrilation, and producing carbon, negative acrylonitrile.

But I do see there will be potential and plenty of opportunity, and acrylonitrile. If we're able to similarly apply the same framework and structure that we've created to advance and scale up nitrilation, I could see in our future targeting other molecules. But for now, we're extremely focused people, and that would be an unnecessary distraction.

How do you envision the impact that nitrilation and your company will have in the industry?

You're talking about the petrochemical space, a space that is responsible for a lot of emissions, but doesn't necessarily have the roadmap or the plans to actually meet the goals. I don't think we often take a step back to really consider what our materials are made of.

In terms of how we're impacting the market today, we've received letters of support from about 55% of our 1.5 billion dollar acrylamide industry. And I think our prospective customers would tell you that they just have these ambitious decarbonisation goals that are driven one part by regulations.

Others are self imposed by sustainability targets, and our technology can really help these companies reach their goals and grow into new markets. So we have that benefit of being one that can be focused on sustainability, and sustainability in the chemical space isn't just the traditional environmental sustainability, but it's also that business continuity piece.

Are there any upcoming projects or partnerships that you're excited about?

I'm excited every day because it's such a joy to be able to represent our growing team with the work that we're doing. Specifically, we're all centered around finalizing fabrication of our pilot plant, which is going to be capable of producing a little less than a kilogram a day of acrylonitrile. This work is fully funded by our grant with Breakthrough Energy Fellows Program.

I mentioned our innovation framework. It enables us to run several phases concurrently, so we're also excited to soon begin our demonstration plant siting activities in the new year. We've done some of this prep work and our participation with The Black and Veatch's IgniteX program . Black and Veatch is a global EPC contractor.

They've been able to give us the foundational tools that we need to begin a successful siting of the project in the new year. And then finally, we're raising a seed round. This is meant to enable us to invest in our supply chain and will enable us to produce kilogram samples of our material using our pilot plant to complete supplier validation in our acrylamide beachhead market.

What exactly does it means to be a public benefit corporation? How does it change your approach and your work at Mars Materials?

As a public benefit corporation, Mars can make as much money as any other company. Our only difference is what is really driving our value creation. Our charter as a public benefit corporation has a singular focus on commercializing technologies that remove and sequester greenhouse gases. That really helps keep us focused and committed to doing the hard work, which is carbon dioxide removal and industrial decarbonisation.

Just from a market perspective, the carbon market is anticipated to be a trillion dollar market, so I believe that there will be just plenty of opportunity for us to do financially well, and good for the planet within that scope of our charter.

What is the legacy and the future that you hope to leave for generations to come?

I'm such a direct person, I'm probably rarely think about this, but I try answer it through our vision. Our vision is to reverse industrial waste carbon emissions. We're just talking about undoing nearly two centuries of carbon pollution, which seems overwhelming, and that's definitely more work than what me and my current team can complete an any one lifetime, or multiple lifetimes.

I think if we're successful Mars Materials will outlive me and the team that is building it today. And I hope that's the case and I hope that one day, this company can employ people from all over the world. That will be such a huge milestone. We call our team members planeteers, and we want a planeteer from every country. And that's because the climate impacts every person.

I truly believe that in order for us to have the buy in, and the results that we need, we absolutely need to build our climate companies for every person. So with that, I would just tell folks that Mars welcomes all, and we mean it. I want the hungry new college grad, I want the single mom, I want the grandparent, and with all the other permutations that people bring about in between and around food.

Imagine we have a listener who wants to follow your steps, but they're facing financial or social hurdles and adversity. What advice would you offer to help them overcome these challenges?

That's such a powerful question. I'm not sure I'm the most motivational person, but I have been through a lot in my life and I think the person that you outlined in this theoretical example is me. I've been there. I've come from poverty, poverty led me to attending 17 different grade schools in college. And to my great dismay, I was weeded out of STEM. And as a black queer man, every day I have to overcome a higher trust barrier just to prove that I belong, that I have standing. These struggles, despite the successes that we've had, have not gone away.

But what I have done is I've gotten better at finding my tribe. So I would tell someone, don't let naysayers stop you, you know? If you're with me, then great, let's get to work, let's move forward. And if you're not, just get out of my way, right? I'm a person on this planet, so are you. And there is no one that can tell me — there's no one that can tell you that you can't be part of the solution to stop and to help mitigate climate change. Full stop.

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