In this interview, we’ll be exploring the technology and methods behind decarbonizing cement – yes, the cement that is just about everywhere in our daily lives! – with Brimstone Energy Co-Founder Hugo Leandri.
When did you found Brimstone as a company, and what’s the story behind it? What was your initial inspiration?
We founded Brimstone in 2019. Cody and I met at Caltech as he was finishing his PhD in the Environmental Science department and I was a staff scientist there at the time. Cody focused on techno economic analysis at the end of his PhD with the intention to work on a technology that would be cost-competitive at scale in today’s energy system and that would have a gigaton impact on greenhouse gas emissions. He settled on a hydrogen process that, at the time we thought, could be cost-competitive with SMR. That’s where we started to work together as I helped him build the first lab apparatus and do lab experiments. After a couple of months of customer discovery, we realized this approach wasn’t a great fit for the fertilizer industry which we were targeting. Thanks to research in our department and at JPL on carbonates on Earth and sulfates on Mars, we started to assemble the first pieces of what is the Brimstone process today.
If you could go back to the founding, is there anything you’d do differently today and any suggestions to other carbon tech founders?
A lot of time spent working on things that are not even in the picture today but that’s part of the journey I guess. As a suggestion, I would say listening to people and feedback is one of the most important skills I’ve found. I would also highly recommend joining an incubator like Activate and doing techno-economic analysis before spending years in the lab.
Could you explain the Brimstone service to our readers – and how it’s different from other similar services?
The production of Portland cement is responsible for 5.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions or 8% of CO2 emissions (the same as cars).
Brimstone Energy developed a process that produces zero-carbon Portland cement at a competitive price point.
In terms of quality of cement, how does Brimstone compare to other services?
We set ourselves apart from other companies because our proprietary process produces a cost-parity product which is identical in every way to conventionally produced Portland cement and we do not rely on costly carbon capture and sequestration.
Where do you hope Brimstone is in 3 years and in 5 years?
In 3 years, we hope to fully de-risk our process and be producing between 50 to 100 thousands of tons of zero-carbon Portland cement per year. In 5 years, we hope to be working with the current industry to scale this process worldwide and prevent millions of tons of carbon from going into the atmosphere.
What would you aspire to do personally, if you weren’t the CTO of Brimstone?
Working with Cody on other projects that could have a major impact on global warming.
Speaking of costs, what room does Brimstone have to reduce costs for its customers?
As we build more plants, there will be significant savings on CapEx. Also, our process will highly benefit from lower electricity prices. But, cost is key, and at scale, we believe that our process can make a lower cost Portland cement.
What are the most overlooked opportunities in cleantech and climate, in your opinion?
Portland Cement of course, methane mitigation is huge and a very few groups of people are working on it, aluminum production, long haul transit, flight.
Dave Danielson and Joel Moxley from Breakthrough Energy Ventures teach a class called Stanford Climate Ventures where they educate students on these “white spaces” as they call it and provide support to spin-out the next big things in clean tech.
If you could enact some policy, what would it be?
Guaranteed offtakes for zero carbon portland cement, like clean power purchase agreements.
What are the major challenges at Brimstone today, and in the coming years?
Once we’ve de-risked our process at an industrial scale, which is definitely a major challenge, financing our plants is second on the list. Working with the cement industry, governments, and policy makers will be key for this technology to be everywhere.
You’re working with some up & coming investors — how difficult was it to put together the round in the current environment, and how challenging do you find the funding environment?
We’ve been extremely lucky to receive support and mentoring from Breakthrough Energy Ventures and DCVC early on. This allowed us to navigate this environment with more ease as first time entrepreneurs. Like everyone says, the first round is the hardest, so we are hopeful that our next round will be much faster.
Any favorite cleantech company or persona which inspires you?
Cooper Rinzler, who is an investor at Breakthrough Energy Ventures, is definitely the person I look up to the most and we, “the climate community,” are extremely lucky to have someone like him focus 100% of his energy on this problem.
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