Leah Ellis and Jiang Yeming

photo courtesy of engine

although Leah Ellis While earning her Ph.D. at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, she was The team doing battery research for Tesla. After graduation, her career took an unusual turn.

“With my background in battery materials, I could have found an easier job – many of my colleagues went to work for tesla or apple. I could have done that … and I would have made more money in the first place,” Ellis, 33, told CNBC by phone Wednesday.

Instead, Ellis applied for and won the prestigious Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship This gave her two years of salary and allowed her to work with whomever she wanted.

Ellis earned a Ph.D.Get a Ph.D. in Electrochemistry and Go to Work Jiang Yeming, Distinguished Professor of Materials Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology He is also a serial cleantech entrepreneur. The companies Mr. Jiang co-founded include: American Superconductor, A123 system, desktop metal, form energy and 24M Technology.

Now, Ellis is working to scale up a new climate-conscious cement production process that uses electrochemistry rather than fossil fuel-driven heat.

It was Jiang’s idea to make cement electrochemically, Ellis told CNBC in Boston in late May. Ellis said she worked with Chiang in 2018, when Chiang had just started working. form energya long-term battery company, is considering the abundant intermittent energy generated by renewable energy sources such as wind power.

“Sometimes people will pay you to take energy away from them,” Ellis told CNBC. “If we could use this ultra-low-cost renewable energy to make things that are carbon-intensive, Instead of putting that energy in a battery, what? Then the first on the list of carbon-intensive things – it’s cement.”

Cement is an essential component of concrete, the cornerstone of buildings and infrastructure around the world because it is cheap, strong and durable. According to one company, 4 billion tons of cement are produced annually, equivalent to 50,000 fully loaded airplanes. Management consulting firm McKinsey 2023 report.The market value is $323 billion in 2021 and projected to reach $459 billion by 2028According to SkyQuest Technology Consulting.

cement powder is Traditionally made by crushing the raw materialThat includes limestone and clay, mixed with ingredients like iron and fly ash, and it’s all placed in a kiln, which heats the ingredients to about 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit.The process of making cement produces approximately 8% of global carbon dioxide emissionswhich is the main cause of global warming.

When Jiang had the idea to electrify cement production, he turned to Ellis for help. “He was super busy, so he said, ‘Let’s go, figure it out,'” Ellis told CNBC.

So she did.

In 2020, Ellis and Jiang co-founded sublime system Improve and scale up the electrochemical process they created to make cement.

Sublime has raised $50M from some of the leading cleantech investors, including Chris Sacca’s low carbon capital and the Boston-based, MIT-spun-out venture capital firm engine; from Siam Cement Groupa leading cement and building materials company in Asia; and through a several grants from this U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) program.

Leah Ellis, CEO, Sublime Systems

Photo courtesy of Sublime Systems Summer Camerlo

Ellis likes to describe what they’re doing as developing an “electric car built from cement.” Electric vehicles replace the internal combustion engine with an electric motor, which is what Sublime Systems has done with their cement manufacturing process.

“I think it’s easiest for a layperson to understand how we can take a high-temperature process that’s driven by fossils and replace it with something that’s driven by electrons. We’re using electrons to drive these chemical reactions,” Ellis said by phone Wednesday told CNBC. “This happens at ambient temperatures below the boiling point of water,” she said, which is a key differentiating factor.

Ellis said she didn’t know much about cement when Chiang Kai-shek asked her to study how to make low-carbon cement. She reads Wikipedia first, then textbooks. Then she worked with another Ph.D. The research conducted by the students was later published in a scientific journal article on the topic. This gave birth to the concept of what Sublime is doing now, which she has been refining ever since.

“And basically it hasn’t stopped,” Ellis told CNBC. “It’s been five years.”

Bringing the ‘magic’ of chemistry to cement

Ellis has always been curious. “I thought, I’m a nerd and read a lot,” she said. “I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge and a sense of adventure.”

She also grew up in a religious household. Her father, an Orthodox rabbi from Texas, and her mother, who grew up on a sheep farm in South Africa, met in Israel. “There were enough rabbis in Jerusalem. So he moved to eastern Canada, where there weren’t many rabbis,” Ellis told CNBC of her father’s relocation. Her family celebrates and encourages her to have a fulfilling intellectual life.

Leah Ellis is the CEO of Sublime Systems and works at Cement Labs.

Photo courtesy of Leah Ellis

Ellis and one of her two younger sisters eventually earned a Ph.D. in chemistry.

“We all realize that chemistry is a very creative subject; it’s also a very difficult subject. I think we all tend to do challenging things,” Ellis told CNBC.

Once mastered, chemistry can be used to effect change. “It’s got a huge amount of creativity to make things happen in the real world,” Ellis said. “It’s almost like magic. If you really work hard, you can create something that makes the world a better place.”

Battery scientists and cement producers have historically never collaborated. “Cement usually falls under civil engineering, and battery science usually falls under chemistry or physics,” Ellis said. “They don’t go to the same meetings.”

But with Sublime Systems, Ellis and Chiang have brought the two fields together.

The framework for using electrochemistry to drive reactions that once occurred in very hot fossil fuel-driven reactions doesn’t just apply to cement.

“It’s a huge tool. I don’t think Sublime is the only tool that applies electrochemistry to clean technology. I think the best way we can bypass fossil fuels is with electrons,” Ellis told CNBC.

“Electrochemical means are usually more efficient,” she said. “Heating things to get them going is usually not as efficient as electrochemistry, which is more surgical and more efficient — or at least with the right process it can be.”

This fundamental energy efficiency is why Chiang is confident in their solution.

“Decarbonizing cement production will be a very difficult task. There will be multiple approaches, all with challenges, but most of them are worth testing,” Jiang told CNBC. “I prefer to face our challenge because we see a path to decarbonize at the same cost as cement today while consuming the least amount of energy. In the long run, the least energy-intensive process usually wins.”

Yet-Ming Jiang, professor of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, speaks at the 2016 IHS CERAWeek conference on February 26, 2016 in Houston, Texas.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The cement industry needs to clean up the workshop

“Overall, the industry’s motivation to go green is high,” Mark MutterThe founder of Jamcem Consulting, an independent cement industry consultancy, told CNBC. The incentive to go green is highest for producers in parts of the world such as Europe, where carbon dioxide prices are around 80 euros (nearly $88) a tonne. This “is a huge financial penalty for producers, but an incentive for them to invest” in green cement technology, Mutter told CNBC.

This is one of the reasons why investors invest in Sublime.

“Clients are lining up to work with Sublime because they can deliver fossil-free cement when the rest of the industry is struggling to meet emissions targets and comply with carbon tariffs,” Clay DumasLowerCarbon Capital partner told CNBC.

“For Lowercarbon, their ubiquity and mid-century production techniques were the qualities that made the building material an irresistible opportunity,” Dumas told CNBC.

Some cement producers are looking at carbon capture technology as a way to manage greenhouse gas emissions. But Mutter told CNBC: “It’s been costly and in some ways just business as usual, sowing problems for future generations.”

Sublime is producing clean cement without the use of expensive carbon capture and storage technology additives, which is attractive because it can cut costs, says kate ray, CEO of The Engine. “Direct production of decarbonized cement, rather than carbon capture, can lead to improved energy efficiency and ultimately cost parity,” Rae told CNBC.

According to Dumas, Sublime has “the most elegant chemistry, runs on electricity at ambient temperatures, and emits zero carbon. This means they don’t need large ovens or expensive CO2 capture systems, which add to capital expenditures.”

Siam Cement Group looks at thousands of companies and only makes “a handful” of investments each year, Tim McCaffreySCG’s venture capitalists told CNBC. For SCG, the appeal of Sublime is that it avoids complex and expensive carbon capture technologies and works with existing infrastructure.

“We’ve seen that Sublime Systems could disrupt the industry. The company produces a cement at room temperature that can go into the existing ready-mix supply chain and meet American Society for Testing and Materials standards,” McCaffrey told CNBC. American Society for Testing and Materials Is the body that creates the testing standards and protocols that manufacturers use to test their materials.

Climb the stairs, work out the solution, move on

Sublime completed the pilot factory in late 2022 and spent several months implementing quality control measures. Ellis is now focused on getting the product to partners, and the company hopes to have its first construction project completed by the end of the year. The next step is to move from a 100-ton pilot plant to a demonstration plant with an annual output of 30,000 tons.

Although Sublime was just getting started, Ellis knew speed was crucial in the race to decarbonise. “My mission is to have a rapid and massive impact on climate change,” she told CNBC in Boston.

Leah Ellis cycling in Africa.

Photo courtesy Scott Carmichael

It’s an audacious goal and although Ellis has a chemistry qualification, this is her first time as a company boss.

“I think I know my age. And I’m very humble about it. I’m a first-time founder. I’m also a first-time CEO,” Ellis told CNBC. “I solve problems as I go along. I’m really lucky to have great mentors and support and people who believe in me and, I think, recognize that I have a lot of energy and that I have a lot of enthusiasm. I’m going to do my best To be able to work hard, and as long as possible, to make it happen.”

Ellis also knows how to keep himself going. She makes sure she gets a good night’s sleep and stays active. She has run seven marathons. She is a cyclist who spent about four months cycling across Africa with a group, averaging more than 60 miles per day. She also participated in “Fit Fever,” a Sunday climb up the stairs of Harvard Stadium.

“I’m not a fast runner at all. I’m not a fast biker either,” Ellis told CNBC. “I just know how to follow this line of effort, like keep the same effort for a long time, and keep your mental state.”

For Chiang, working out a solution keeps him going.

“It’s been about 15 years since the word ‘climate change’ entered the lexicon. To be able to pursue potentially impactful solutions, rather than just sit around, is a gift and very inspiring,” Jiang told CNBC.

“I believe climate change has pushed us all into an extremely fertile, creative period that will be seen as a true renaissance. After all, we are trying to reinvent the technological tools of the Industrial Revolution. There is no shortage of talent and there are many Big issues need to be addressed! And time is short.”

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