Plastics recycling, especially for mixed and contaminated plastics, remains a major pollution concern. At the same time but seemingly unrelatedly, we need more plentiful and sustainable sources of graphene (useful for everything from solar cells to battery storage) and graphite (a key component of lithium-ion batteries).
What if one technology could address both challenges?
When Ian Bishop and Ron Presswood first brought their idea for a recycling process that would create carbon and hydrogen to a professor at a Tier One University, they were told it was scientifically impossible. Two weeks later, the professor called them back, and presented the chemical and thermodynamic reactions that now form the core of Elemental Recycling’s technology.
Elemental Recycling, a Greentown Labs member, recycles all plastics and tires to create high-purity graphene, graphite, and hydrogen in a process that’s CO2 equivalent (CO2e) neutral.
“Even with just graphite, we’re filling a huge need: all the natural graphite in the United States is imported, and synthetic graphite has a very high CO2e footprint,” says Bishop, the company’s co-founder, president, and CFO. “We’re CO2e-neutral, because we use electric heat generated through solar and wind power.”
Their system will be able to process 50,000 pounds of plastic and churn out 40,000 pounds of graphene and graphite per day, according to Bishop. The minerals created are more than 99 percent pure.
Demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to spike as electric vehicles become more widespread, a fact amplified by the Inflation Reduction Act’s stipulation that 40 percent of the minerals and 50 percent of the battery components used in EVs are sourced from North America or a country that the U.S. has a fair-trade agreement with.
Bishop asks, “Who’s going to fill that void?” — and then raises his hand.
Elemental Recycling intends to disrupt the graphite market by selling the mineral at much lower prices than are available today, which will also make it feasible for industries that don’t yet use graphite to adopt the startup’s CO2e-neutral material.
While Elemental Recycling is currently focused on using plastics and tires as its feedstock, its technology has been proven to work with “essentially anything organic,” Bishop says, including hazardous waste, consumer electronics, and more.
Elemental Recycling recently raised its Series A, led by Freestone, a portfolio company of Tailwater Capital. Ellen Wilkirson, Principal at Freestone, learned about Elemental Recycling through Greentown’s Deal Flow Digest—a core component of our Investor Program that showcases fundraising members to our investor network.
“It’s amazing how many people found me through the Deal Flow Digest,” Bishop says.
“Freestone really loves the waste-to-value space,” Wilkirson says. “Elemental will have abundant and low-cost feedstock, as there is more than enough plastic waste for the world to deal with. On the demand side, we really like that Elemental is producing a product with a large existing market today, with significant demand growth expected in the coming years as EV battery manufacturing ramps up. High-quality graphite is used in a number of industries, so Elemental does not have to create a new market for their product, meaning very little adoption risk. Elemental is positioned to serve as the low-cost, clean, local graphite producer for the EV battery industry.”
The Series A investment will allow Elemental Recycling to build its first commercial facility, which the company expects to be ready for production in the first half of 2023. The four-person startup plans to grow to 15-20 team members over the next year.
“Freestone is very excited to serve as an ongoing partner to Elemental as the company builds out their first commercial facility,” Wilkirson adds. “We believe we can leverage Freestone and Tailwater’s experience scaling companies in the recycling and energy infrastructure industries as Elemental seeks to deploy their revolutionary technology at scale.”
In addition to the Investor Program, Bishop says Elemental Recycling has benefited greatly from introductions to Greentown’s corporate partners.
“The Greentown team was doing a tour for some potential new members, and I walked up to them and said, ‘I’m a member here, just join right now, take my word for it. See all the partners up on the partner wall? They introduced me to half of them, and I’m going to be introduced to the other half, and holy cow, they’re fantastic.’”