Carbon Rivers’ upcycled advanced materials make the most of limited resources
The way things are going, Carbon Rivers won’t be a small business for long. That’s good for all of us, because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2022 Small Business of the Year is busy making advanced materials for a sustainable future. The company’s less is more approach does wonders for creating circular economies, so when it comes to scaling their contributions, more is definitely more. Carbon Rivers took home the grand prize at the Chamber’s annual Dream Big Awards on Oct. 18. It comes with $25,000, but the attention the award brings to the mission is worth much more.
“Already there’s been tremendous traction,” Carbon Rivers chief strategy office David Morgan told BOSS.
Local and national news organizations have come calling, and Morgan’s email inbox quickly filled with people wanting to know more about the Knoxville, Tenn., enterprise’s work.
“The amount of exposure that the U.S. Chamber has at this level is pretty remarkable and allowing us to be showcased among other businesses is really special to us,” Morgan said.
Glass to Glass
What’s special to Carbon Rivers is the pure innovation the company has brought to a variety of industries. Glass to Glass reclamation technology gives glass fibers another life cycle. Carbon Rivers can recover the glass fiber from a wind turbine mechanically intact and turn it right around for next-generation manufacturing of another wind turbine. That solves one of the big challenges of wind energy: renewable waste. The same goes for auto parts, boat building materials, anything with glass fiber content. The process also yields pyrolysis oil, which could prove to be an ESG sustainable, circular economy oil for the petrochemical and oil/gas industries.
Next year, Carbon Rivers is set to unveil an antifouling marine coating that would eliminate the need for dry-docking and cleaning. The coating is UV-resistant, anticorrosion, anti-abrasion, and prevents biological growth on the underside of boats.
“The maritime industry is responsible for about 3% of global emissions,” Morgan said. “With our marine coating alone, we’re able to give them increased fuel efficiency, less drag, no sloughing into the seas to spoil or do damage to coral reefs, and no fouling.”
Innovations like that allow industry partners to reach the ESG goals they’ve set for themselves or comply with governmental regulations.
“That’s just one of about a dozen different things that we’re working on in the area of sustainability,” he said.
The key to that marine coating is pristine graphene, a nanomaterial one atom thick that lowers the surface energy of a marine hull to prevent the biological growth that fouls hulls and motors and slows things down. Pristine graphene can give electric vehicle batteries a much greater cycle life, faster charge time, and longer range, the holy trinity of EV optimization.
As large-scale renewable transition puts pressure on the U.S. power grid, pristine graphene can ease the strain by increasing conductivity.
“What we’ve developed is putting pristine graphene into metals like 1350 aluminum transmission line, and we’re getting over 10% electrical conductivity jumps in those transmission lines,” Morgan said. “Imagine you have an offshore wind farm. You have our pristine graphene in the metal cables of the transmission lines from that offshore wind farm to the utility station. You are not going to have a loss in transmission from that farm. This is a tremendous game-changer for the U.S. grid.”
Carbon Rivers just so happens to be the world’s largest commercial supplier of pristine graphene.
“It’s like taking a material and supercharging it” by giving it a longer life cycle, making it more durable, and recycling it for next-gen manufacturing.
The mission for Carbon Rivers is material stewardship. While the company’s products can transform several industries, the goal is always to get multiple life cycles out of whatever material is in use.
“When we mine something out of the Earth, silica, glass fiber, and things like this, if there is a way to provide multiple iterations of that glass, that’s by far a better social and climate responsibility than going back to that same mine and getting more.”
That’s what Carbon Rivers sees as the greatest contribution the company can make in any of its endeavors. In the next few years, as Carbon Rivers expand into the energy grid, into the nuclear space, and into coatings for rubber tires and elastomers, that material stewardship will always be the driving force. When it puts pristine graphene into concrete to improve compression, shear, and flexural properties with hydrophobia that prevents bridges and airport runways from freezing, that will be the reason why.
A Blank Slate
“Not as fast as our industry partners would like,” Morgan chuckled when asked how quickly Carbon Rivers is growing and scaling, a testament to how significant its contributions are.
Next year, Carbon Rivers will break ground on a plant in Knoxville and one in Texas that will each be able to take in 50,000 metric tons of glass fiber waste per year.
“The goal of those facilities is to take in many thousands of turbine blades or automotive manufacturing bits, recover the glass and then put that back out into manufacturing for new turbines and new automotive production lines,” he said.
There’s scaling up the pristine graphene production to meet the needs of those many sectors that can benefit from it. There’s untold potential, and the key to tapping it will be giving the people of great ingenuity at Carbon Rivers the freedom to create.
“Sometimes inventors and scientists and entrepreneurs are stifled when they’re told that, ‘You can’t do something,’ or that, ‘No one’s going to receive what you’re trying to develop.’
“Give them space to operate,” Morgan said. “I think that’s incredibly necessary to see innovation take place.”
Sometimes in business, you’re providing products and services for an existing market, he said. Other times you’re creating the market, and that’s where the magic really happens. There are about to be a lot of blank slates at Carbon Rivers. Let’s see what magic they can conjure up.