The climate killers.
Innovation. The Baden-Württemberg start-up company carbonauten has developed a plastic whose production uses raw materials that would otherwise produce harmful greenhouse gases. In ten years, the founders Torsten Becker (l.) and Christian Hiemer hope to generate more than one billion euros in sales with this super material.
As a former national hockey player for the former Bundesliga club SSV Ulm, Torsten Becker is used to taking risks, working hard, fighting. In this respect, he was not particularly irritated by the fact that the business model of carbonauten GmbH, which he and Christoph Hiemer founded in 2017 in Giengen an der Brenz, was initially commented on with a frown by some, but dismissed by others simply as a modern fairy tale. How is that supposed to work? To produce a plastic, make a billion euros in sales and save the climate at the same time, at least a little bit.
The wonder material that the young company is currently patenting is called OCM (Organic Carbon Material). In order to produce it in a six-hour thermo-chemical conversion process at temperatures between 400 and 700 degrees Celsius in cylinder-like containers, all that is needed is biocarbons as an ingredient. "As raw material, we use sawdust, wood chips and green waste, but also problematic materials such as waste wood and rootstocks. Slow growing grasses, nut shells and plant seeds are also very suitable, as are press residues from oil production. We can process anything that is dry, i.e. contains a maximum of 35 percent water, and can be cut into small pieces," explains Becker. This also works in other countries. "In China we can use reed and bamboo, in Southeast Asia coconut and peanut shells and palm oil seeds." Substances that otherwise end up in waste incineration or on the compost heap, releasing harmful greenhouse gases - CO2, nitrous oxide and methane - are converted into different, specified, certified and batch-precise biocarbons in a highly efficient process. "Because these biocarbons are very stable and do not rot or metabolize, this prevents emissions. A single tonne stores 3.0 to 3.3 tonnes of CO2."
How does that work? "This is exactly our know-how, our unique selling point," Becker beckons. He only reveals this much: It all depends on the exact temperatures, the right binders that have to be added, and their combination. "We are currently documenting these processes in an extensive biocarbon library," says the founder, "because this knowledge must not just exist in people's heads. It's all about details, it's about very sophisticated processes."
Experts call this a "Negative Emission Technology" (NET). In combination with different binders such as bioplastics, petroleum-based plastics, silicates and minerals, novel materials with special properties are created. And as a by-product, surplus, base-loadable renewable energy in the form of heat and electricity is generated, which can be used to supply local industry and households in a climate-friendly manner.
Becker really gets going when he shows what he can do with the climate-friendly OCM. "It can be conventionally cast, pressed, formed and reworked." That's why the possible applications are almost unlimited. "At the end of the day, we get two groups of OCM: biodegradable and non-degradable, but particularly stable and therefore recyclable."
Biodegradable, for example, are plant pots made of OCM, which are used in nurseries, but also in supermarkets, for example for kitchen herbs. "Every day we use 20 million of these pots in the EU, creating huge amounts of plastic waste." His pots, on the other hand, could easily be disposed of in organic compost or planted in the ground. "The subsequent decomposition process does not release any CO2. The binders also decompose in the soil without leaving any residue, providing the plants with nitrogen for growth. This is why our biocarbons also form the basis for the superfertiliser Terra Preta." Disposable tableware, coffee capsules without aluminium and plastic, coffee-to-go cups, straws and food packaging can also be made from carbonaut plastic. "It sounds crazy, but the more disposable products we make from OCM, the better it is for the environment."
The non-degradable OCM variants are used to produce housings and components such as walls, bricks, panels for floors, walls and ceilings, panels and fibre-reinforced support structures. Foams can also be produced which cushion, insulate acoustically and thermally, filter or are used in lightweight construction. "Window frames made of OCM are more resistant than those made of plastic and aluminum," Becker affirms. He also wants to supply a barrier film for road construction that is laid between gravel and asphalt and dissolves by itself. And he is thinking of a black building façade and roofing made of a mono-material, in which channels are already integrated into the sheets when they are pressed under pressure - so-called extrusion - in which water can be heated and then stored in heat tanks. "This works better than conventional thermo-solar technology!" Even carbon glass from OCM is conceivable. "Is resistant to environmental influences, heat-resistant and predestined for the construction industry." Even in cosmetics, OCM could replace the plastic tubes of make-up pens, as well as in the stationery industry.
The material has advantages not only in terms of the environment and CO2 balance: OCM is also cheaper, lighter and more durable than many plastics, lasts for many decades - depending on the binder - and the electrical conductivity can be varied. It can also easily supply the colour black, says Becker. In the case of plastics, this is only possible by adding harmful industrial soot. In addition, "his" biological raw materials do not compete with food. And they are unrivalled in terms of price.
"In this country, a ton of our 'raw material' costs about 70 euros." For more than 25 years, industrial designer Torsten Becker developed products for small and medium-sized companies until he first came across biocarbons in 2013. Since then, he can't imagine anything more exciting than bringing new materials made from them onto the market.
He finds a passionate comrade-in-arms in Christoph Hiemer who, after studying law, worked in what used to be Germany's largest engineering company for combined heat and power plants, which his father ran. For 20 years he worked there as an expert for biomass flows and their utilisation. Thanks to his contacts in the markets and with customers, he is now responsible for site development, financial planning, biomass flows, sales of biocarbons, energy utilisation and plant operation at carbonauten. As Managing Director, Becker is responsible for innovation and communication.
So it seems that the two have developed a superior product. And had a great idea. Now all they have to do is put it on the road. After all, the carbonauten are currently a partially virtual company - a classic start-up. But the preparations are underway. In the meantime, they have rented 300 square meters of office space for two years in order to be able to increase their staff and set up a research laboratory.
Becker explains that more staff and space will only be needed when production in the pilot plant starts this year. It is to be located in Eberswalde, where the project may receive up to 40 percent public funding.
Three modules are planned, in which 4800 tons of OCM will be produced annually in three-shift operation. Other saleable products are: 24 gigawatt hours of thermal energy (850 degrees Celsius), 240000 litres of pyrolysis oil and 15000 tonnes of CO2 certificates. "A plant like this costs five million euros on a greenfield site," Becker calculates, "and can be operated with eight to ten employees. The investment costs would be amortized after three years at the earliest and after six years at the latest.
The entrepreneurs are currently examining twelve potential locations in Germany, and after Eberswalde it will probably be Kaiserslautern's turn. In order to keep the transport distances of the "raw materials" to the plant as short as possible - for cost reasons and to save energy - the founders rely on many decentralized units. "In Germany, industrial production will start in 2021, internationally it will start in the same year. By 2025, we want to be the world market leader, the leading platform provider for biocarbons."
For 2025, Becker expects a turnover of 120 million euros - excluding the added value from pyrolysis oil, CO2 certificates and waste heat - through the sale of 160000 tons of OCM. By 2030, this figure is expected to reach as much as 1.35 billion. And the profit? "Margin depends on biocarbons, processing and markets."
A simple example, which already works today, is high quality charcoal. "Our production costs are 450 euros, we can sell it to wholesalers for 650 euros, and as direct marketers for 1100 to 1300 euros. On top of that, there is income from energy sales and CO2 certificates." Becker assumes that a standard plant generates at least 30 percent yield. This can be expressed more precisely via the Ebitda, "but even then it depends on various parameters such as personnel costs: With nine employees we can operate a single module, but also six modules." The goal in any case is "the mass realization of the locations - we want to have 200 by 2030".
Has anyone lost their grip on the ground there? Becker shakes his head vehemently. No, the market for plastics and building materials is simply gigantic worldwide. In 2018, he says, it will be 360 million tons, with a sales volume of 360 billion euros. An almost ridiculous 2.1 million tons were accounted for by bioplastics. It is therefore only a matter of securing a small part of this cake. And the fact that climate change is now seen as a serious problem helps them to do so. After all, in 2018, 1781 billion tons of CO2 were blown into the air during conventional plastics production.
In Europe alone, more than 50 million tons of plastic are produced every year. Of this, 40 percent is used in packaging, 20 percent in the construction industry and ten percent in the automotive sector. "We can succeed in all these sectors," Becker believes. The carbonauten are therefore cooperating with well-known industrial partners. Together with Daimler, for example, they are exploring the extent to which OCM can replace plastic. "The Stuttgart company hopes to reduce the weight of their vehicles." Other partners include Voith (supplier of the systems), Züblin-Strabag, EnBW, MVV Energie, UPM (The Biofore Company), BSH Hausgeräte, 12Tree Finance GmbH and Forest Finance, a strategic investor specializing in sustainable forest investments.
Becker believes that the capital required to finance growth is manageable. The three million euros for the construction of the pilot plant have been secured, and he does not need more than another million euros until 2021, as the start-up is expected to be profitable very quickly, before 2021. The managing director then expects a further ten million euros of capital to be required until 2023. He intends to raise the capital either through another financing round or by issuing a CO2 bond.
Currently, Becker holds a good 86 percent of the shares, 9.98 percent have been held by Forest Finance from Bonn since October. The strategic co-partner is Andreas Jacob with four percent. He is managing director of the engineering office for urban planning FIRU GmbH in Kaiserslautern and can therefore assess very well where potential production sites are located in Germany. Sony and another "super-investor", which has not been specified in detail, have also expressed interest in joining the company.
This all sounds too good to be true. What can go wrong? Becker shakes his head, then says, "Nothing can happen to either of us." And adds: "Of course, the approval of a plant at a specific location can fail if a rare bird nests there. But that doesn't break our backs, because we are very decentralized."
Recycling yards, sawmills and pellet plants, energy-intensive companies, agricultural operations or even "greenfield sites" - the potential locations are many and varied. "Ideal are those where biomass is produced directly, in the immediate vicinity or within a radius of up to 50 kilometres. Where renewable energy is needed 24/7 at low prices. And where synergies are created by sharing infrastructure, space, buildings and personnel. This lowers investment and running costs."
No question: Becker and Hiemer are men with great visions and many ideas. Some industry experts complain: with too many ideas. Two years ago, for example, it was said that the carbonauten were working with the Ulm-based garden tool manufacturer Gardena on the "future of the world of plastics" and developed an environmentally friendly injection moulding granulate made of OCM for this purpose. Today, Becker says that Gardena lacks "the courage and a vision. However, we are in discussion with other partners".
In media reports, there has also been repeated mention of "preliminary talks" on the construction of plants in various emerging countries (Namibia, Ghana, Kenya, Chile, Nicaragua, China, Vietnam, Pakistan, India) - without, however, specifying the projects and a timetable. "In China we will probably sign an agreement in the next few months," Becker now announces. A provincial government wants to invest a two-digit million euro sum. In return, it would receive a 40 percent share in the China branch of carbonauten. The goal is an IPO in three to five years and the establishment of a "Carbon Valley Asia".
And then there is the matter of the patent. Becker is confident that he will soon get the green light for this, but that's not in the bag yet. He says: "If it is not granted, that would not be a disaster. No one has accumulated so much knowledge. Nobody can produce so cheaply."
Criticism is sometimes voiced about the possibly too large range of products and applications. The carbonauts would get bogged down if they wanted to introduce their OCM into too many markets that they could not even survey. Becker, whose start-up has already won several founder and environment awards, including the German Innovation Award 2020 in the materials category, is well aware of these arguments. He counters them with the sentence: "I would like to see a little more American mentality. Above all, a good gut feeling is needed there; the Germans need detailed Excel tables."
He has this gut feeling. And yes, also a dream: of a better, more environmentally friendly world that is not destroyed by climate change. That's why he is not only interested in making money: "We can imagine one day disclosing our patent, our recipes for the binder mix, to everyone. We don't have a sharing problem there, we want to make an active contribution to climate protection.
His vision: One day, after the end of the pandemic, to get back into an airplane powered by hydrogen from the carbonation plants, whose wings are made of OCM from the carbonauten, and to have food and drinks served on board, of course with trays, plates, cutlery and cups made of OCM. "Believe me, it will work. After all, I have five children to feed." ®
Author: Dr. Günter Kast