A 26-year-old Kiwi engineer and his former professor try to clean up one of the dirtiest metal recycling industries in the world
Who would have known that zinc is so useful? Humans need it for growth, healing, immunity, taste and smell. Plants need it to grow, cricketers need it to protect their noses from sunburn.
And it’s super handy for doing stuff too. Its resistance to corrosion has seen it combined with copper to make brass for centuries, it is also often bronze. And the “sheet metal” on your roof? It’s probably galvanized steel – zinc coated steel.
‘Galv’ is widely used in construction, cars, agricultural equipment…anywhere steel needs to be protected from rust.
In short, zinc is the fourth most consumed metal in the world (after iron, aluminum and copper), about half of which is used to make galvanized steel.
The mining and refining of zinc ore is moderately bad when it comes to the production of greenhouse gases and global warming. There are worse metals; there are better. (For example, aluminum produces more CO2 during its manufacture than zinc, steel produces less.
There is growing pressure to recycle more old galvanized steel and other zinc-containing materials into usable zinc.
Recycling saves more zinc from needing to be refined, and you can essentially extract pure zinc from old zinc products and put it back into new ones over and over again. The quality does not deteriorate.
Nearly 40% of the zinc used worldwide comes from recycled zinc, and that figure is expected to rise to more than 50% by 2050, according to the International Zinc Association.
Unlike the deal with many other metals, recycling zinc using the technology we currently have actually produces far more greenhouse gas emissions than mining the metal from scratch. .
According to the Zinc Association, global mining operations produce an average of 3.64 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per tonne of zinc. This figure is 6.5 tonnes of CO2-e for recycled materials.
The recycling process is also expensive and unnecessary.
This is where a New Zealand company spun off from the University of Canterbury comes in. Zincovery, founded by 26-year-old engineer Jonathan Ring and his former teacher, Aaron Marshall, has invented a technology that, at least in laboratory tests, can save zinc from waste using 70% less energy than current methods and producing one-sixth the carbon dioxide – less than one tonne of CO2 per tonne of zinc.
The process is also 30% cheaper, Ring says.
“Zincovery’s technology has the promise of significantly improving the environmental footprint of the global, multi-billion dollar zinc recycling industry,” said Zincovery’s CEO.
It’s the beginning. Zincovery will announce today that it has completed a $3 million venture capital funding round to take its research from the lab bench to a pilot plant. Investors include New Zealand funds like Icehouse Ventures, K1W1 and the Climate Venture Capital Fund, as well as Austrian billionaire Wolfgang Leitner.
Tucked away in a corner of the engineering school parking lot, the pilot plant will consist of two shipping containers and smaller chemical and water treatment storage containers. This should allow Ring, Marshall and their team of six (which should increase to 10 shortly) to test small-scale production.
If all goes well with the pilot, perhaps by the end of 2024 around another $10 million will be needed for a larger demonstration plant.
And if this succeeds, there will be tens of millions of additional capital needed to move to full-scale production.
Realistically, getting that first recycled zinc out of a commercial plant could take five years.
So-called “deep tech” projects are neither cheap nor easy.
A thorny problem
ZIncovery’s story began in 2018 with Aaron Marshall, an energy technology specialist, professor at the University of Canterbury School of Engineering and principal investigator at the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.
“I was at a galvanized steel place in Christchurch and they mentioned in passing that they had a problem with the waste and the amount of zinc appearing in that waste. It was a huge resource sent to the landfill.
It seemed like a tough problem to solve, and he told Ring about it, when he had just finished school and was looking for a job in the industry.
“I had no ambitions to go to college, but it was a hands-on project and great for the environment, and Aaron said he wanted to turn it into a business if he was successful. I hadn’t realized that post-graduate studies could be a route to that.
It has been four difficult years. The first iteration – a technology to remove zinc from galvanized steel scrap – won the prestigious Callaghan Innovation C-Prize and raised $1.2 million in seed funding. But market research showed that it wasn’t going to work out financially.
“One of the main things we had to prove was the Chinese market, because China produces 65% of the world’s galvanized steel,” says Marshall. “Initial valuations were promising, but they were opaque.
“So we spent about $100,000 to get good market information and found that yes, Chinese factories produced a lot of waste, but there was a low zinc content in that waste and the costs of waste disposal was low. Our technology was only viable with high disposal costs and high zinc content.
It had all gone so well, Ring recalls, then suddenly disaster struck. “We realized we weren’t going to be able to get capital – we didn’t see a path for a startup to enter this market.”
The board met – Ring, Marshall, Sean Malloy of sustainable green tech companies LanzaTech and Avertana, and entrepreneur Daniel Batten – and they gave the Zincovery team three months to pivot the technology and the business.
“We knew there were a lot of opportunities in the metal recycling space,” Ring says. “So we said ‘Let’s spend three months seeing if we can find a big enough market and something where we have a competitive advantage based on the skills of the team and our existing intellectual property.’
“Otherwise we would shut down and return the money to investors.”
“It certainly heightens the senses,” Marshall says. “Most of the team members are technicians. Suddenly, it was all about market research.
Between working like crazy, the Zincovery team has been impacted by Covid, including Ring impacted by long Covid. But they found the market segment they needed – kiln dust from recycling waste.
Imagine a pile of scrap entering a furnace, melted into new steel. The molten steel comes out the bottom, but the zinc and other additives come out the top as dust and are collected in a bag.
Think of a huge vacuum cleaner.
The challenge is to extract the zinc and other metals from the dust and produce zinc at 99.995% purity.
“A normal-sized steel mill will produce tens of thousands of tons of this hazardous waste dust in a year,” Ring says. “Something like 70% of recycled zinc comes from kiln dust, and its zinc content is between 15 and 35%.
There is already a process for removing zinc from dust, using what is called a Waelz furnace. But Ring says the advantage of Zincovery is that its oven operates at a much lower temperature, which means it will use 70% less energy, significantly reducing emissions and costs.
So far, investors like the idea. The latest capital raise was oversubscribed, Ring says. They were originally looking for $2 million, but “quietly hoped for more.” Even taking $3 million, Zincovery had to turn down a number of investors, he says.
“When a capital increase goes, it goes.”
The largest investor is Icehouse Ventures, which took a stake in the previous funding round and now owns 22%.
Chief executive Robbie Paul says it is helpful that New Zealand has developed some expertise over recent years with companies using sustainable technologies to extract value from the metal waste stream.
LanzaTech, now based in the United States, captures emissions from steel mills and landfills and turns them into fuels and chemicals. Avertana uses slag waste from steelmaking to produce minerals and chemicals. Mint Innovation recycles e-waste and opened its first commercial biorefinery in Sydney in August.
Zincovery director Sean Molloy has worked with LanzaTech and is a co-founder of Avertana.
“Investments in Icehouse are geared towards companies that can do more than just make money, but also do good,” says Paul. “We believe that companies whose mission goes beyond simply making money will attract the best talent and investors, and this has a cumulative effect on their success.”
He is not put off by the trials that consumed much of the first three years of Zincovery’s life – quite the contrary.
“Every company that makes headlines has been through hell and back—sometimes in the beginning,” Paul says. “Resilience and tenacity are an essential basis for us. We are talking about founders who have the audacity to put everything on the line.”
He says Ring has the advantages of youth (being closer to the cutting edge of innovation and not being hampered by family and therefore able to live on the cheap) and also having a mix of technical and marketing skills.
“Never underestimate young founders, especially when they are driven by mission and an eternal optimist.”