Interview with Impossible Mining CEO Oliver Gunasekara, Part 1

Oliver Gunasekara, CEO and co-founder of Impossible Mining, recently sat down with me to share a bit about the company and what inspired him to take on the critical metals, EV batter materials, and mining industry. This is part one of our interview. In this part, we discuss:

  • Reinventing The Mining Industry
  • Inspired By The Worst Wildfires Of 2020
  • Turning The Supply Chain Challenges Into A Solution

Reinventing The Mining Industry

Impossible Mining, Oliver told me, is a startup focused on reinventing the mining industry with a specific focus on battery metals. He pointed out that the transition away from fossil fuels requires larger and larger amounts of battery metals such as nickel and cobalt.

“What we are trying to do at Impossible Mining is providing these materials, but do it in a far more responsible way than historically has been done by the mining industry. They’re really focusing on ESG as a primary driver when we think about resources we go after and how we actually extract the resources and what we leave behind.”

ESG is the acronym for “environmental, social, and governance,” which recently was a hot topic when Tesla CEO Elon Musk criticized what are considered pro-ESG investment and the US Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) started investigating potential greenwashing of the fossil fuel industry. This happened after Tesla was booted from the S&P 500 ESG Index while Exxon and other oil companies were included in it. The SEC wants more transparency for indices. You can read more about that here. The core point Oliver was making, though, is that Impossible Mining aims to do things in an environmentally and socially responsible way.

Inspired By The Worst Wildfires Of 2020

One thing I am always curious to know is the inspiration behind a company or project. This is the heart of the work, what drives someone to do something. I asked Oliver what inspired him to get into mining, what problems he wanted to tackle. Oliver told me that Impossible Mining has a focus on responsible seabed mining and refining as a way of enabling the transition away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy.

Impossible Mining is actually the third company Oliver founded and has run. Oliver told me that he was inspired by the worst wildfires he’d ever seen, which happened just after he’d sold his last company.

“I live in the Bay Area — San Jose — and I think it was around September of 2020 that we had the worst wildfires that I’ve ever experienced. The sky went orange and I know it was quite well-documented. The air quality was dreadful. And at that point, I really kind of told myself that if I’m going to do another company — another startup — it needs to be in the climate tech space, because I really feel that we don’t have a huge amount of time to make an impact on the climate crisis.

“I also believe that innovative technology is really how we’re going to solve some of these big challenges that we have ahead. So, that was really the genesis. From that point, I started to research. I sold the last company about a year earlier and was trying to think about what to do.

“While researching and reading as much as I could, I came to the conclusion that batteries were the most important component of our electrification, and hence, moving away from fossil fuels, obviously. In EVs, it’s the power source, but also for renewable energies like solar and wind. You need this energy when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. Energy storage in the form of batteries becomes critical. And I came to the conclusion that there are some real challenges around the supply chain of the components, the metals that go into the makeup of these batteries.”

Turning The Supply Chain Challenges Into A Solution

The supply chain constraints have proven to be challenging for all types of industries, and this includes the climate tech space. Tesla has made the news for surviving these constraints while other automakers struggle. I asked Oliver what he could do to turn these challenges into a solution. After all, innovation is often born from taking a challenge and not just solving it, but also transforming that challenge into a solution.

When he looked at the existing supply chain for battery metals, Oliver noted that there seemed to be threes fundamental problems.

“First was that we just didn’t have enough of this material available. With mining, you go for the most profitable mining first. So that means high grades and easy access. 50 to 100 years ago, we were able to get grades of nickel in the 1–2%. And they were not very remote. There was good infrastructure in the mining — a train line or a highway. But these days, all of that stuff has already been mined, so mining companies are forced to go to much lower grades. In fact there are a bunch of mines trying to be permitted in the US that have grades of about 0.2% of nickel.”

He explained that with the lower grades, mining companies have to dig up much more ground, which affects the economics as well as the environment. This was just one of the problems.

“We were basically running out of this material on land and we needed to build a lot of infrastructure to go and get it. It also happens to be that these mines tend to be quite remote. So you’ve got to invest in a highway or a village to go and support it.”

ESG also poses another problem–displacing people, especially Indigenous Peoples, to access and build the mine.

“One of the problems with mining that is almost never talked about is the fact that you nearly always have to displace people. You have to build the village, the highway, and often people live there. So, you often end up displacing people, often forcibly, often using the courts, and often Indigenous People. And that’s really unfortunate. And that also results in delays. The average time to permit a mine in the West can be between 12–15 years, because you’re forcibly having to remove people. There’s litigation, then it goes to court and takes a long time.”

The second problem, Oliver said, is doing the mining and delivering the material without having a big ESG footprint.

“Destroying the environment, having to forcibly displace people, and what about the tailings? Often with a mine, you have to use a lot of chemicals — a lot of acids to actually do the refining. Once you’ve dug up the ore, you’ve gotta get the metal out of the ore and that often involves the use of acid. And that acid, unfortunately, doesn’t dissipate. It typically gets dammed in what’s called a tailings dams.

“And these tailings dams have a habit of failing because they are not managed correctly, and every year a few people die from a tailings dam disaster. In fact, there was a big disaster in Brazil a few years ago where over 280 people died when one tailings dam failed. This is the second problem. How do we get this metal without destroying environments and people? And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The third fundamental problem Oliver is tackling with Impossible Mining is competition with China, which is playing the game intelligently. China has been giving loans to countries such as Indonesia and countries in Africa where these metals are abundant. And in return for these loans, China gets the materials for the next 10–20 years.

“And this means that if we want to build batteries, we’re probably going to have to buy this material from China. And that’s not very different from Europe being addicted to Russian oil. I don’t think, strategically, it’s a good solution for us.”

Stay tuned for part 2.


 


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