Aluminum. It’s everywhere!
And we’re going to need a hell of a lot more of it in the future.
Aluminum is a primary ingredient in solar, wind, hydro, concentrated solar, bioenergy, the grid, batteries, hydrogen, and more. And that’s just electricity generation and distribution, to say nothing of consumer goods, from EVs to baseball bats.
Great news: we already collect and recycle a hell of a lot of it. Compared to, say, plastic, this is a huge win!
But…the bit we haven’t been able to recycle is 1) at scale, a lot, and 2) FAIRLY hazardous.
Luckily, some very smart young folks may have figured out how to recycle more of it, and maybe even power their whole operation from the inside out.
We have to rebuild our entire economy to get to zero new emissions, and then go even further. Some sectors are far easier than others, and deep tech, heavy industry, is the latter.
It’s not sexy, but heavy industry is – often literally – the foundation for everything we do. Think metals and minerals and concrete and steel and more.
My guests today are Rostam Reifschneider & Julian Davis.
Rostam and Julian are childhood friends, and the founders of Hydrova, a new company that focuses on developing technology to repurpose waste byproducts of aluminum recycling that are typically landfilled into valuable commodities.
Rostam is another 776 Fellow that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and sharing with you.
What they’re trying to do is so important. If you’ve ever watched a video about aluminum production or recycling on YouTube, well, it’s like looking at a collection of rings being forged in the fires of Mordor.
Finding a way of making that process more efficient, more circular, less dangerous for people and the climate, and just in time for us to need much more of the product?
Well, that’s a story I’ve just got to share.
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Quinn: [00:00:00] Aluminum, it's everywhere, and we're gonna need a hell of a lot more of it in the future. Aluminum is a primary ingredient in solar, wind, hydro, concentrated solar with the mirrors, bioenergy, the grid batteries, hydrogen and more. And that's just electricity generation and distribution, to say nothing of the consumer goods like EVs and iPhones and tables and buildings and airplanes, chairs, pots and pans, shutters on your windows, baseball bats, softball bats, picture frames, chips, trains, lamps, AC units, water bottles, and more. Great news, we already collect and recycle a hell of a lot of aluminum compared to say, I mean, plastic. That's a huge win. Here's some news I wasn't previously aware of: the bit we haven't been able to recycle is one, at scale, a lot, and two, pretty [00:01:00] hazardous. News I am currently aware of and excited to talk about today: some very young, smart folks may have figured out how to recycle more of that waste and maybe even power their whole operation from the inside out.
Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett, and this is Science for People who Give a Shit. In our weekly conversations I take a deep dive with an incredible human or two who's working on the front lines of the future to build a radically better today and tomorrow for everyone. Along the way, we'll discover tips, strategies, and stories you can use to get involved and become more effective for yourself, your family, your city, your company, and our world.
So look, yeah, we have to rebuild our entire economy to get to zero new emissions, no big deal. And then we gotta go a little further. Big deal. Some sectors are already gonna be far easier than others to decarbonize and deep tech, heavy industry is the latter. It's not sexy, but heavy industry is often [00:02:00] literally the foundation for everything we do.
Think about metals and minerals and concrete and steel and aluminum and more. I am, if nothing else, a wannabe nerd who understands about 50% of what these conversations typically include. I am here on Earth to extol the missions of people who give a shit. So when super nerds get together in a garage during a pandemic and maybe figure out a way to address waste from the materials that underpin our whole enchilada, I am in.
My guests today are Rostam Reifschneider and Julian Davis. Rostam and Julian are childhood friends, and the founders of Hydrova. A new company that focuses on developing technology to repurpose waste byproducts of aluminum recycling that are typically landfilled into valuable commodities. Rostam is another one of those 776 fellows I've had the pleasure of meeting and sharing with you, and what these two are trying to do is so important. If you've ever watched a video about aluminum production or recycling, you should, they're on YouTube. [00:03:00] It's like looking at a collection of rings being forged in the fires of Mordor. Finding a way to make that process more efficient, more circular, less dangerous for people and the climate, and just in time for us to need much more of the product. That's a story I've gotta share.
Rostam, Julian, welcome to the show.
Rostam Reifschnieder: Thanks so much for having us Quinn,
Quinn: You are welcome. Thank you. I don't know one of those things. Very excited. It's very early for you and I apologize, but what are you gonna do? Thank you for being here. This should be super fun. Like I was saying offline yesterday, I was talking cookbooks and tofu, and today we're talking about aluminum smelting, so.
Just really exercising that muscle. I like to start with one important question to set the tone for this, and to get some deep philosophical musings from the both of you. Instead of telling me your entire life story, I like to ask, why are you both, why are you each and combined, vital to the survival of the species?
And it sounds [00:04:00] ridiculous. It is ridiculous, but I encourage you to be bold and honest because you're here for a reason. So let's do this.
Rostam Reifschnieder: I'll kick things off. So, Humankind, especially right now, definitely needs more innovators, engineers, entrepreneurs, and more to survive long term. But really it's up to our generation, the young folks, to solve this massive problem that we really did not create.
But now it's upon us to set up the future generations well. So really we have to develop the technical expertise that will otherwise be lost as older generations age, needed to bring these new technologies that are gonna allow us to be successful in the long run, to life. So we believe in fighting climate change by building things, shipping things, creating and innovating.
We know that we're just one of many, many ponds in this large battle, but all of us are really important.
Quinn: That sounds great. Julian, now you have to beat that. [00:05:00]
Julian Davis: Yeah, no, definitely a tough answer to top. But yeah, I'd say for the work that Rost and I are doing at Hydrova a little more specifically, we really see our role as pushing forward the frontier of sustainability in the aluminum industry.
So we're gonna be talking a lot about aluminum today. Excited for the conversation, and specifically about these waste streams called dross and salt cake. Not a lot of people know about outside of the industry. Rostam and I had no idea about these wastes before we started doing what we're doing, but it's a huge problem in the industry.
There's millions of tons of these materials that get created every year and go to landfill. We're working on keeping those materials outta landfill, putting them back in the industry. And making the industry a lot more sustainable while doing so.
Quinn: I feel like you're really discounting my listeners. I mean, my listeners really fucking love aluminum.
They're gonna be really pumped to get into this. Awesome. I really appreciate it. On that note, to set this up for folks, again, we try to walk the line depending on the conversation, on how nitty gritty we get with these things, whether it's [00:06:00] cancer, ocean acidification or aluminum, whatever it might be. I mean, all we hear about is all the minerals we're gonna need, right?
That are trapped under China or on the ocean floor, right? All the metals, all the materials that are going to be, I mean, immediately are increasingly required for effectively rebuilding our entire economy. When you gotta replace every car and electrify every building to start with, right? You're gonna need a shitload of this stuff.
But a lot of them are still. Will be very difficult to, for them to not be this way. They're a massive carbon hit, right? And aluminum is correct me where I'm wrong. 2% of global emissions, something like that. And demand is supposed to grow at least 50% in the next 20 years or so. So we gotta find out how do we make a shit ton more of this stuff with far fewer emissions, but also recycle what we've got. Let me ask you this, and I know I said I wasn't gonna get into your entire life stories here, but folks come on the show, whether it's incoming calls, outgoing, whatever it is, because [00:07:00] they or someone they love has been directly affected by COVID or sea level rise or Mom died of cancer or blindness or hunger.
How did aluminum hurt you? Why aluminum?
Rostam Reifschnieder: I'll first talk about aluminum in general and then tell the story of how we got into this.
Rostam Reifschnieder: Looking at aluminum overall, a lot of other industries I think could learn a lot from aluminum and emulate some of the awesome qualities of the aluminum industry. I'll touch on the second part of what you said about recycling.
Recycling aluminum is one of the awesome ways that we can prevent a lot of the emissions that make up that 2%. Aluminum is super recyclable, takes 95% less energy to recycle aluminum than produce it from box site, which actually means that it takes like also 95% less emissions and that's awesome. So we prioritize recycling in the US, we're actually really good at recycling over 75% of the aluminum we make is from recycled sort of recirculated [00:08:00] aluminum, so that's awesome. And other industries could definitely learn from that. But what Julian and I didn't know about before we got into this was the sort of inherent waste challenges that come with aluminum recycling. So when you're talking about recycling scrap like old cans, old car parts, you can imagine melting all that stuff down.
It's not a perfect recovery process. You get a lot of aluminum back, but inevitably you also get this other waste byproduct called dross. It's sort of this like hard layer that forms at the top of the bath of molten metal and gets skimmed off and aluminum gets recovered from that, but all of the other stuff ends up going to landfill.
Julian and I, while we were still students, Julian was at Georgetown, I was at MIT, although we were collaborating because it was during Covid and we were both remote from San Diego, it was while we were working on aluminum water reaction for hydrogen production actually. That we realize there's this massive waste challenge in the aluminum industry that we could finally actually help solve.
Quinn:, Basically, like on a per unit [00:09:00] basis the waste is pretty small, but the problem is we make a fuck ton of aluminum, right? And so, scaled up, it's just a shitload of waste. Right?
Rostam Reifschnieder: Exactly. When you recycle, say a thousand tons of aluminum cans, you get the majority of that material back, like over 75% of that is aluminum that you get back up to a quarter of that material can actually become dross. Dross, has some aluminum so it gets, the aluminum gets recovered from it, but it also has salts and metal oxides. That's like the majority of this dross material, the hard stuff that forms at the top of this bath. And so that's the stuff that when it gets skimmed off is not actually useful to recycle, ends up going to landfill.
So just because we recycle so much aluminum in the US which is great and we should be recycling as much as we can, we also produce a lot of dross and millions of tons of this stuff end up going to landfill in the form of salt cake.
Quinn: Got it. So Julian, when you guys discovered, what [00:10:00] the hell is this stuff we're skimming off here?
That's otherwise going to waste, I guess. What about it made you go, we should do this? Is it the scale, I guess, the problem and the opportunity, or is it the challenge of no one's figured this out yet?
Julian Davis: That's definitely a great question on sort of the why and how we got started and all this. I can sort of take a step back and talk a little bit more about Rost’s and I's story and, and how we wanted to get involved with technologies like this in the first place.
So, like Rostam said, we've been close friends for over 10 years. We both grew up in California witnessing the firsthand effects of climate change with droughts and wildfires that we were experiencing in the state. And yeah, both just always spent a lot of time in nature and really grew a passion for the environment and wanting to preserve the natural world around us. While we were in high school, we were always very entrepreneurial talking about ideas and just always bouncing ideas off of one another. And we really, specifically were always passionate about climate, the environment, and wanted to do something in that space. It was really during COVID that we got sent back from [00:11:00] school back to San Diego.
We started having these weekly brainstorm sessions where we were thinking about different ideas that we could really use this weird time in our lives to start working on something. And yeah, it was during that time that we are initially starting looking at hydrogen production and sort of tangentially, it was related to aluminum because we were using the aluminum water reaction.
And then once we realized this waste problem and learned about it, we just got so excited and fascinated by it because it's something that we had no idea about. We feel like most people have never heard about, but it has such a huge impact in terms of waste volume being generated. I mean, for comparison, in the US alone, there's a little over a million tons of salt cake, alone, that go to landfill every year, and there's around 20 million tons of plastic that go to landfill every year. A lot of people have heard about plastic and the problems with plastic waste, and that's a huge challenge in its own, but not a lot of people have heard salt cake or dross before, so I think that's what got us really excited. And what keeps us super [00:12:00] passionate about the work we're doing.
Quinn: But let's take a further step back. So you guys get sent home from school, like everybody all over, they're like, Shut it down. We'll figure out remote classes. A lot of folks learned how to bake bread. I attempted to teach preschool to my small children who were, had no interest in listening to me.
Like the power leverage went out the window. I know it started with it sort of a different experiment, but different schools like, What the hell were you two doing? Was it, were these class assignments? Like again, like how did we literally get from Go home, we'll call you later when we figure it out, to doing this in the garage in what I assume are like Breaking Bad suits, like what was actually the opportunity here?
Rostam Reifschnieder: It was through a program at MIT called the Sandbox Innovation Fund. It's an awesome program that gives, sort of no strings attached seed funding to students with ideas to pursue companies. They give up to like $25,000 in funding, but staged sort of as you make progress. So it was at the end [00:13:00] of our junior year when Covid hit, and we got sent home right before that junior summer.
That junior summer was when we were kicking around the ideas and thinking about applying to the program. And then finally we decided, Okay, let's go for it. Let's do this as our big summer project. Applied to the program, got the initial. I think it was like $5,000 of funding, showed some initial progress through the summer, and then in the fall of our senior year, things were still completely remote.
We applied for even more funding, got the rest of it. Now we're alumni of the program. They supported us all the way throughout graduation and it's just been an awesome community to be a part of. That was what really enabled us to do things remotely not on campus using any of MIT or Georgetown's resources together while we were at two completely different institutions on the other side of the country.
Quinn: Okay. That makes a little more sense. I have to assume though, and I was watching yesterday videos of aluminum being made and recycled and all this [00:14:00] stuff, YouTube. What a great place. $5,000 doesn't go so far. Tell me about how you're building out and managing the funding of these sort of experiences.
I'm interested in the technical side of course, but also just because, and we'll get to sort of how you got hooked up with 776 and things like that. But there's basically, there's more and more opportunities like this, whether it's grants or fellowships or funding or whatever it might be. And sometimes they dilute your equity and sometimes they don't, whatever it might be.
But I'm interested in folks who are listening and engaging with these things or potentially seeking them out, understanding how best to utilize their ideas and prepare them to apply for these sort of things, and then to show their work, but then also how to manage it in an intelligent way. Five grand isn't that much.
Even 25 grand isn't that much when you guys had to build, I mean, this is hard tech. This isn't like, people are like, We're gonna build software for your company to track their carbon offsets. Like, great, hard, but I mean, come on. This is real shit. So how does that actually. Work in practice.
Rostam Reifschnieder: We used that initial funding to set [00:15:00] up a sort of lab space remotely here in San Diego, and we've always been super scrappy.
So we made that $25,000 go a long way and really, really stretched it. We were essentially doing pretty small scale lab experiments, capitalizing on trying to do things at a small scale and make learnings and advancements that way. So we were able to sort of demonstrate what we needed to demonstrate at that scale to then go and raise a little bit more funding and scale things up larger, so now we're working with pilot partners to be able to actually do things at a larger scale. Back when we were working at the lab scale, we would be dealing with grams of material. Right now we're doing a pilot with California's largest aluminum recycler, dealing with 5,000 pounds of material at a time.
It's really with working with these partners that already have massive facilities up and running that we're able to go from that lab scale to pilot scale. I'll pass it off to Julian to talk a little bit more about the business progress we've made since that [00:16:00] grant and now.
Julian Davis: In the early stages it was all about being scrappy and super efficient with resources.
Could tell a bunch of stories about ways we found creative solutions to avoid spending thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars and only spend tens of dollars. Maybe a story for another time. In terms of where we're at now, so after getting that grant funding from MIT, we're still sort of in the experimentation stage while we're still students.
And then we graduated and decided this is something we really want to go for full-time. We saw a really exciting opportunity. We're working with some of these aluminum manufacturers who are excited about it and just know firsthand how big of a problem that this waste is and we're having to deal with sort of the financial impacts of managing it.
Right now we're doing a pilot like Rostam mentioned with TST Inc. They're the largest aluminum recycler and manufacturer in California, and we've brought on some amazing chemical engineers to the team to be able to help us sort of in that build out stage. Just moved into a new R&D facility in Orange County and to be [00:17:00] able to support all of that, of course, being in hard tech, having to, you know, bring on talent and so on, you're gonna have to raise funding and be able to support yourselves.
And so we actually were able to raise some VC funding from some Angels and VC’s and then we just brought on 1517 Fund as one of the investors in our seed round. So that's sort of the most exciting recent update.
Quinn: Okay, two things. One, I'm sure you're really tied to your company name, but no one's worse at puns than I am, but if you're not calling this thing super scrappy, I feel like it's a failure.
I mean, we're talking about aluminum. Two, talk to me about, because folks are starting to understand the difference between, and it's controversial, whatever, between something like carbon capture and CCS, right? So you've got carbon removal. The mechanical version is the big facility with the fan sucking it out of the air straight up, right?
And then however, whatever we do with the output, whatever, there's 40 different things. You've got something like CCS, which a lot of is like strap on, put it on coal. There's [00:18:00] a climate tech company now that is invented, you can strap it onto trucks, right? You can strap it onto cooling towers on commercial buildings or military bases, whatever it is.
Right? Grabbing it at the source. So you just avoid the emissions entirely. You're talking about these partners you're working with and scaling up. What does your process actually look like in application? It seems like maybe if you're working with these places with big factories, you're not building your own place to do that, or maybe is that in the future or is this something more modular?
That's an accessory, I guess, to the existing plans? Paint the picture for me
Rostam Reifschnieder: Typically, these things are done in massive standalone facilities, and that might be where we have to start to prove ourselves. But our end goal is definitely to sell smaller, modular, turnkey solutions to these manufacturers that they can set up onsite and run in a fairly automated fashion and not have to set up these massive mega facilities. Caveat to that is if [00:19:00] you've never run one of these full scale facilities before, it's hard to sell one of those systems. So we'll probably have to build a facility that we own and operate ourselves as the sort of serial number zero, but then from there can scale and expand a lot more quickly by selling these smaller, more modular solutions.
And that's another advantage of our technology. It allows us to be profitable in much more smaller scale. So for example, customers like our pilot partner TST Inc. In California, they have one facility here. They could actually support a system with just their one facility here in California, which typically isn't really the case.
You need like a bunch of facilities compiling all of their waste at a big plant.
Julian Davis: Today dross, as Rostam mentioned, is sort of this waste byproduct that comes out of the aluminum recycling process. It gets skimmed off and right now it gets essentially put on a truck at these facilities and then shipped off to another company that takes care of it from there.
What that other company will do is [00:20:00] traditionally get the aluminum out of the dross and then just landfill the rest. And the rest is what's called salt cake, and that's what's always going to landfill. What you can imagine our system as instead is sort of a black box that gets put onto these aluminum manufacturers sites.
That rather than having to put the stuff on a truck, ship it hundreds of miles away to get dealt with, it can actually be processed right there at the aliminum manufacturing facility and not create any waste in the process. So the input is dross and then on the other end spits out aluminum, salts and metal oxides.
All three of which are valuable products that can actually be reused. And then there's no waste stream that's going to landfill. So the aluminum and salt actually go right back into the aluminum manufacturer's furnaces, aluminum, of course being their main product. And then salt is used in the recycling process, sort of like input, the oxides are actually really valuable material for cement manufacturing, and so those can be sold to nearby [00:21:00] cement customers. What's happening today is the stuff's getting put on a truck sent sometimes hundreds of miles away. Our solution can really be put on site as sort of a bolt on solution and create these valuable products without putting anything in landfill.
Quinn: That's super helpful. I appreciate you both painting that picture because again, not my ballgame. A couple things, from what I understand, these byproducts are historically fairly hazardous. Is that correct?
Rostam Reifschnieder: Yeah. So when you store salt cake and landfill, it can cause a lot of problems.
It can be a reactive material that creates explosive flammable gases that have to be managed. So there's been like explosions and fires in the past. EPA has come in and introduced regulations that make landfills have to do all sorts of protective measures, isolating the waste from other waste and covering it with liners and things like that.
It depends on where you are and what your local sort of jurisdiction mandates. But yeah, it's just been a traditionally really difficult material to handle in the past. Every time one of these landfills has big problems, [00:22:00] the regulations get more and more strict. So we only see that continuing in the future.
Quinn: Okay, that makes sense. So you guys, it seems like are, and I mean this with the highest compliment, but it, it seems like you're not producing necessarily an end use product. Is that correct? You're kind of like a processing middleman instead of it becoming waste, you're processing and it sounds like some of it feeds right back into the factory, the aluminum and the salt, but then for the rest of it, is there a marketplace for that product? Are there already buyers for that sort of thing? How does that work?
Julian Davis: Yeah, our system is really to allow those materials to be separated out and recycled. So today the aluminum is usually getting taken out, but then the salts and oxides are not. That's what's going to landfill.
By recycling those materials instead of putting them in landfill, we're actually able to prevent new salts, new oxides from being sourced and going into those manufacturing processes. Instead, [00:23:00] there's end customers for all the materials. The aluminum and salt get reused right by the same manufacturer that makes the waste, which is awesome.
It creates a great circular economy right there on site. Usually cement manufacturers will source box site, which is also related to the aluminum industry, but cement uses it too. And they'll use that to get their aluminum oxide and put that into cement. So we can basically act as sort of a sustainable, locally sourced alternative to that box site with actually higher aluminum oxide percentages.
So it makes it more beneficial, just really clear end markets for, for all the materials here, and preventing new sort of minerals from being mined by recycling these instead of going to landfill.
Quinn: Yeah, no, that's certainly cutting off and making it a much more circular process, especially at the site, is fantastic.
I mean, if it's a million pounds a year of these byproducts put into landfills, hazardous makes other things go boom, and the EPA gets very sad. What about the historical accumulation of this stuff? Is that something you guys can touch? Is there an [00:24:00] expiration date on it in some ways? Is this a problem we can begin to attack or talk to me about that.
Rostam Reifschnieder: This stuff has been piling up in landfills for a long time, and they do need to be remediated every so often when they have sort of problems like this. So we definitely see our technology as a solution to go in and remediate larger landfills. I mean, you scoop the waste out, put it through the process, and then produce, you know, your valuable end products from that.
We could even potentially have a sort of mobile system that we take from landfill to landfill and remediate them. But the place that we're starting is with sort of the more point source capture, you could say, with the waste coming off of the furnaces.
Quinn: Sure, that makes sense. At what point do you start to engage further, and I know you've said you've raised from some angels and VCs.
At what point do you really look at the scale of this, of what you are able to build? Because of how much we're making, how much we're recycling, how much we need to make, the historical accumulation, et cetera, et cetera. Look at your ability [00:25:00] to, right now, you do it on site and you prove that it works, and then maybe more modular versions in the future and go, this is the total addressable market. This is how much we think we need to be able to prove it and scale it in the next, three to 10 years. Gonna be some pretty specific funders that you're gonna look at there because it's a lot of dough. Where are you guys in that process now? And then how do you really start to sort through your options?
Julian Davis: Think you hit the nail on the head in terms of finding the right partners to work with. It is a very specific issue that we're solving here and finding sort of players in the aluminum industry that deal with it firsthand has been a huge help because finding those people to support us, like with our pilot right now, and talking with partners for the future and growth is really important. Where we're at right now and sort of the timeline is we've raised some sort of private funding to be able to support us through this pilot stage. And that's gonna be the next around six to 12 months where we're [00:26:00] working at doing this process, basically a smaller scale, basically a smaller version of our black box that we're operating out of our facility here in Orange County.
And then from there, our goal is to be able to implement one of these full scale systems, working with some of the largestT aluminum manufacturers in the country and finding them the right partners to really be able to fund and support this. So TSD, who we're working on the pilot with, they're a great partner we're working with.
We're also building relationships with some of the larger aluminum recyclers throughout the country to really be able to support us and as we scale up.
Quinn: It's great that there's buy-in from industry seems like right away. What are the incentives for them to do that? Are they penalized for the waste they produce?
Is it because we just need to do that? Is because you are proving that there's a circular element to this and that they can actually get some product back? I guess what is the incentive for them and then how do you keep proving that to drive more and more industry participation? Because obviously dog fooding this is the easiest [00:27:00] way to, to prove it to folks, right?
Julian Davis: The incentive for them are definitely the cost savings and then the sustainability impact in terms of cost savings. The system we're trying to create here is something where it's actually gonna be much more beneficial for them financially to recycle these materials because rather than paying money, to put in a landfill, they can actually create value by sourcing the materials that are inherent in those waste streams.
Rather than paying money to send it to landfill, you now have a revenue stream. The sustainability impact is super important as well. There's organization within the aluminum industry called the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative. And that has really pushed some of these companies that are members of that initiative to create new sustainability goals and try to reduce both their emissions and their waste.
So we're working with partners that are part of that initiative that have set some of those benchmarks to try to reduce the amount of waste they're creating and dross and salt cake as sort of the number one material that these companies are producing in terms of waste. [00:28:00] So they're looking for solutions that can help them reduce that environmental impact that they have.
Quinn: And so do you price your product and if there's certain things you don't wanna reveal, it's totally fair. Do you price your product or service however you're framing as marginally less than the cost of shipping this shit off to landfills to explode, or is it fairly equal? But also you get the sustainability merit before these things become even more regulated than they are.
How does that work from a business plan standpoint?
Julian Davis: Definitely the goal is to have a system here where these aluminum manufacturers, after buying it, and accounting for the capital expenditure and the operating costs of running the system, that total cost of operation, is lower than what they would otherwise have to spend sending it to landfill. And then they're actually creating more value by creating valuable products from the waste instead of sending it to landfill. So that's definitely the goal is to have these companies save money in the long run.
Quinn: Gotcha. Rostam, I [00:29:00] assume when you talk about the test facility in Southern California, it's easy for me to picture, again, some combination of like Breaking Bad and Rick and Morty, like in a garage, skimming this stuff off.
I assume we're past that. At what point to you do you feel like this is working? Like we've got this down and now it's time to really scale this baby up? Technology wise?
Rostam Reifschnieder: I really think we felt that way for a while. I mean, when we were proving this stuff out at the lab scale with grams of material, we demonstrated the entire process producing the aluminum, the salts, the oxides, all through and through.
Now we're doing it at like 5,000 pound scale and we're very confident that it works. We're just literally like building larger equipment to scale things up. So, in the pilot we've recovered the aluminum from that 5,000 pounds so far, and now we're work on the salts and the oxides and then from there we will have the confidence to go up to full scale and, and build a facility that can actually process all of our pilot customers waste.
So we don't think we're that far [00:30:00] away. Pilot will be done in maybe six months and then, yeah, we'll be ready to go to full scale.
Quinn: Talk to me about the energy requirements of your recovery process. Is this something that right now can only be driven by fossil fuels? No one's in trouble here. Is it something that could be run by renewable green hydrogen, et cetera, et cetera? Tell me about that part of your thinking.
Rostam Reifschnieder: Yeah, actually, really glad you asked. So the process, requires energy mainly for one step. So recovering the salt requires like evaporating off a ton of water. That's just the nature of re crystallizing salt. It inevitably is an energy intensive process that like is the vast majority of the energy of the process.
Everything else is just minor electricity demands for like pumps and motors and stuff. The salt recrystallization process has classically been the like challenge to recovering these salts and why they just landfill it. That's why what we were [00:31:00] researching at MIT comes in handy because we were researching hydrogen production through the aluminum water reaction.
So what we realized is that any aluminum left after aluminum recovery in this dross is actually an ideal sort of source of aluminum for this reaction to produce, call it green hydrogen. I mean, we don't really know what to call it because it's not through electrolysis, It's like a new kind of hydrogen. But this clean hydrogen that you're producing can be used to actually power the salt recovery process and cleanly power it in that.
So that's one of the huge, sort of innovations that we've also filed some patents around, and are super excited about.
Quinn: It seems like you've sort of stumbled on a way for it to at least in part use one of the byproducts to power itself somewhat. Is that, am I totally off base there?
Rostam Reifschnieder: Exactly, yeah.
How we initially got started in this was studying how we could just produce hydrogen from aluminum. But there's not enough aluminum in this waste to produce enough hydrogen where we'd be bottling it up and selling it [00:32:00].
Quinn: As the primary product.
Rostam Reifschnieder: Yeah. Right. So, so it's not like an end product that we're selling, but there is enough, however, to power the process itself and run at a much lower sort of, energy consumption, which is a huge advantage.
Quinn: I mean, I think that's such a lesson onto this entire movement in a lot of ways, right? Which is like, it's not black and white just because you can't get enough hydrogen out of it to become like a hydrogen producer, manufacturer, whatever it might be. Like you said, green, hydrogen, clean, whatever the hell everyone wants to call it, doesn't mean it can't be useful in some way, right? It is there. And how can those things be applied? And when we look at - Solar's incredible. In many places, cheapest energy of all time already, right? All we gotta do is scale the shit outta this and use all the rooftops and land where we can, or concentrated versions, whatever it might be.
But solar's just not very efficient. It's like wildly inefficient when you look at, , as opposed to like the intensity of fossil fuels, whatever it may be, but every degree that we improve on that is, again, if you scale that up, just like if you scale up the [00:33:00] entire footprint of aluminum, it really does matter, right?
If we can get two to four extra percent from 22 to 26 or whatever, that's a massive difference for world energy production, right? And it's a massive win for land use and for water and for shit, the aluminum that we need for solar pv, right? I try to look at these things. It's the same way as people go, Well, if we're over 1.5 degrees we're fucked. And it's like, well, one, we are. And two, it's like, no, every 10th of degree matters, right? Every one of these wins that we get matters. And so if you guys have found not only a way to make this stuff not go to the landfill, but identify little parts of it that can be reused, the more we can prove out these circular methods, economies, however you wanna frame it, again, I feel like it'll inspire more folks to look at these things in a more nuanced way, hopefully.
Does any of that make sense? Did I black out?
Rostam Reifschnieder: No, absolutely. We totally, totally resonate with that. That's exactly sort of what happened here. I mean, we realized this hydrogen isn't going to be able [00:34:00] to replace electrolysis, but what it can do is enable us to solve this huge waste challenge in a really efficient and smart way.
We're super excited about it.
Quinn: Well, thank you for solving everything. We really appreciate it. Tell me a little bit more, again, I want to take a real step back cause I don't wanna ignore this cause I know it's kind of how we got hooked up, folks, whether they're on this journey, whether it's organizing or hard tech or software or whatever it might be, how you get hooked up with groups like 776 or MIT, where are the best places to look for those opportunities?
When are they most advantageous? When are they not? And would you do it any differently, I guess, and I know you're still early in your journey, but would you go on those processes or engage with different groups any differently than you did along the way?
Rostam Reifschnieder: I'll take it in in sections here,
Quinn: Please. It was a 12 part question.
Rostam Reifschnieder: The best places to look are sort of through your network, the amount of people that you can reach through a few degrees of freedom is pretty incredible [00:35:00] and a warm intro goes a lot farther than a cold outreach. But cold outreach also does work. We've been at this for two plus years. We have sent a lot of cold outreach emails, and the vast majority of them don't get responses. But the very, very few that do can end up being just as fruitful as a warm intro. I don't think we would've done anything differently. We've really, really enjoyed all of the programs that we've been a part of, and they've all really been instrumental to our success.
The timing of it was like sort of building off of sandbox after graduating from MIT and then we did another sort of pitch competition, a couple of other accelerators, another one at Georgetown, another one at MIT. Then we connected with 1517 and 776 sort of at the same time, I guess it's now hard to remember which one came first, but it was right around the same time when we connected with 776, I [00:36:00] became the one of the 2022 Climate Fellows, which is awesome and helps us maintain our very scrappy sort of startup lifestyle.
And then 1517, the team that started the Thiel Fellowship as well to lead the seed round has been also awesome. And yeah, really happy to be working with both groups.
Quinn: Interesting. So what are next steps for the business? Ignore for a moment, the mechanics. Who are we hiring next? As this thing starts to prove itself out, is it people to help you capitalize on this thing?
Is it people to help you iterate on the product itself? Is it relationship managers with the industry? How do you scale the actual business up from here.
Julian Davis: We're looking for more engineers to bring onto the team to really help us scale up what we've proven in the lab to a larger system, and that's what we're working on now.
So always looking for amazing engineers, people with specifically chemical engineering expertise to help us sort of grow and expand our [00:37:00] capabilities. I'm not sure how many of your listeners are from within the aluminum industry, but definitely folks who are familiar with the problem and really passionate about it, or maybe they’ve never heard about this stuff in the first place and just are interested in the story. Definitely just looking for passionate people who we can sort of bring on and help us expand our impact and our reach so we can get more customers involved.
Rostam Reifschnieder: I'll add onto the hiring plug. We're gonna need to hire a construction manager as well to build our first full scale facility soon.
So anyone listening, definitely reach out.
Quinn: Let me ask you this. I was gonna ask you if these chemical engineers that you're on the hunt for, if they would require some sort of explanation, Hey, here's how we came up with this really cool thing that's never been done. You know, do you need to retrain their thinking or their, or their processes in some way, whether wherever they're coming from, chemical engineer wise.
But it made me step further back and ask what was the particular innovation here? Why hasn't [00:38:00] someone cracked this before? If we've been putting a million pounds of aluminum waste into landfills for so long?
Rostam Reifschnieder: The specific sort of innovation that we brought forward was really the hydrogen aspect. The recycling has been demonstrated before and that's awesome.
We don't have to reinvent a lot of these individual, like chemical engineering unit operations like salt recrystallization, for example. That's been done before. We don't have to reinvent that from the ground up, but the fact that we're able to do that efficiently without using too much energy by producing hydrogen and stringing together the process in this sort of unique way that we have, that's really the key innovation that's enabling us to recycle this waste really, really efficiently.
Julian Davis: It's also been the motivation sort of increasing as these materials have become more regulated and harder to deal with. It's sort of prompted some of these aluminum manufacturers to look towards alternative solutions like ours to look towards actually repurposing materials, [00:39:00] and the economy has also pushed that forward as well.
The price of aluminum has gone up significantly. The cost of the salts that we're producing and recovering from the waste, it's a mixture of sodium and potassium chloride and potassium chloride specifically, the price went up like three times in the last year. These materials are becoming more scarce and important for us to preserve and recycle, and that's sort of creating a real economic driver for these companies to say, Hey, maybe we shouldn't be putting this stuff in a landfill anymore and actually recycling it.
So it's sort of all these things that have come to a head at once and the timing's been really key. That we see it as being really opportune for companies to look towards solutions like ours.
Rostam Reifschnieder: Very serendipitous timing with all of these things happening at the same time as us realizing that we could sort of do this hydrogen production aspect and lower the cost of recovering these materials.
So it pushes the scale on our balance on both ends of it.
Quinn: Well, I mean, we try very hard here. [00:40:00] I try very hard and it can be a struggle sometimes to frame some of these enormous systemic, often mostly self-made problems as opportunities, right? And they have to be if we're gonna really get as much participation as we require on them.
But history is also littered with these serendipitous examples, right? I mean, yes, it was. How to phrase this correctly? Uh, lucky to have this sort of pandemic in 2020, 2022 as it continues in the sense that so many people, not everyone by any stretch, were able to distance and work from home, things like that, but also in the sense that researchers like Dr. Karen Kariko were able to spend 15 years trying to make sure these mRNA vaccines, which worked, they just caused massive inflammation in people. And she finally figured that out about a year and a half before we really needed these things. And so it's like, Hey, great. You solved it. What's the application for it?
And it turns out everyone on the planet. You can call your serendipitous, but [00:41:00] it's a lucky moment, I guess. But it, that doesn't mean there hasn't been a lot of work going into it. And that's why I'm also again curious about like with the mRNA vaccines, we kind of take a step back and go, Okay, they're not perfect, they're fantastic.
And this is a really fascinating, the mechanics of it, the product of it. And you take a step back and go, What else can we possibly address and if not solve with these things. And that's why I'm always so curious about sort of the historical accumulation of these byproducts. It's going like, Yes, let's make sure it works and let's build your big factory and maybe the more modular versions, but also like, how do we start attacking the piles of this shit that have piled up for so long? You know, what's, what's the bigger scope? I'm trying to help you with your tam here, guys.
Julian Davis: To add to that. I felt bad correcting you, but it's actually a million tons in the US alone. Million tons.
Quinn: Did I say pounds? Jesus Christ. It's like a school bus. It's a million tons. Running on fumes here. Fascinating. This is all exciting. What is your biggest obstacle? Where do you probably possibly fail in the next couple years?
Rostam Reifschnieder: In Deep tech, it's always [00:42:00] like physically erecting equipment is, is the hardest thing.
Um, I mean, we've proven the process. It's, the process is not like some like moonshot that we're hoping eventually works out. We know that it works. It's now a matter of finding the capital, the people, the space and the customers to actually build these large scale facilities and like physically erect the equipment.
We have to be delusively overly confident as entrepreneurs that will be able to do this. So I say that we're very confident that we'll be able to do this, but I think that's gonna be the biggest challenge. As, you know, young recent college graduates to go build a massive chemical plant.
Quinn: Yeah. Good luck. Julian, what about you? Where, where does this all come crashing down?
Julian Davis: Like Rostam said, I think, it's really in the scale up and sort of finding the right partners and financiers to, to help us do what we're doing. I think partnering with folks in the aluminum industry has proved [00:43:00] well and where we're trying to lean into most since they really deal with this problem and just have a firsthand motivation to wanna solve it. So yeah, it comes down to the funding and the equipment and sort of scale up all those things combined, really making sure that it comes together so we can really go to the next stage from here.
Quinn: How much the equipment is sort of standard stuff versus how much within reason.
Versus how much needs to be sort of prototyped and invented.
Rostam Reifschnieder: So we're lucky in that, like I mentioned before, a lot of the like unit operations that we need to do in this process are pretty standard chemical engineering unit operations. Like, for example, recrystallizing salt. There's plenty of readily available commercial systems that we can use for that.
And then the custom aspect is like, okay, powering that via the hydrogen that we're producing. There's definitely some things that we're gonna have to prototype and sort of customize on that aspect. But no, in general, the process is definitely, we're [00:44:00] lucky that it's able to be sort of pieced together via a lot of well developed technologies.
Quinn: That's fantastic. My question is, if it process has been provable, your recent college grads who have to build chemical factories, all these things, the pieces are fairly standardized. What is your moat, I guess what's preventing sort of big aluminum from doing much of this themselves instead of just partnering with you guys?
It's really, like Rostam said, like each standard unit operation is relatively off the shelf and what we can source and there's few custom aspects that we need to sort of in how we're connecting them, but it's really the combination of these steps that's never been done before in the sort of unique pattern that we are doing.
And that's what we're in the process of patenting is sort of that overall process. And also working with these specific materials, the dross and salt cake and how they impact those systems. Sort of what specific customizations we need to introduce to those [00:45:00] systems. That's all brand new and needs to be sort of innovated around.
That's where our moat comes from and why we're in the process of patenting all of this. On top of the just sort of research that Rost and I have both, like specifically been doing over the past two plus years, really understanding the nitty gritties of the problem and building a sort of a dedicated team to be focused on this.
Cause for a long time, the industry sort of saw this material as, uh, we'll just landfill it and, and not have to worry about it again. And that was just what was standardly done. And it's really this timing with sort of increased regulation, increased realization of sort of the value of these materials that's made these companies think otherwise, but they haven't really spent the time working on the technology.
That's really what we're focused on here at Hydrova and what makes these companies really wanna partner with us.
Quinn: That makes sense. I mean, hopefully then it becomes a process where they can continue to not have to think about it and you yourself become sort of the patented off the shelf option, which is, Hey, we're spitting out this waste like everybody else, [00:46:00] who's the people who just come in and take care of this stuff.
It's kinda like a food truck. They pull in, they make all this delicious food, and then they leave and you never have to worry about making it or cleaning up or anything like that.
Julian Davis: Definitely the food truck of the aluminum industry.
Quinn: There you go. You're slogan, you're welcome. Super scrappy, the food track of the aluminum industry.
We've talked a little bit about working your way through these programs and, fellowships and grants and things like that. Any of our chemical engineer listeners who would like to just jump right in. Any other ways for folks to get involved, whether that's on the policy side, Is that a state side or federal level, or are you raising money again soon?
Things like that. What are specific ways folk can get behind this important mission.
Julian Davis: Yeah, like we mentioned already looking for great folks to bring off the team. Also, always looking for great investors that we can have support us in our journey. On the policy side, that's really important as well.
California has sort of been one state leading the charge in terms of regulating these materials, make it sort of, [00:47:00] More important for these companies, these aluminum manufacturers based here in California, to find sort of better solutions than just land filling we think other states can follow and folks that are in leadership positions there, you might have never heard about this issue before. We'd love to talk to you and sort of explain the problems with dross and salt cake and make it a more important issue. Both on the state and the federal level. I think that conversation is gonna be really important as we move forward.
Quinn: And you might not have this information hand, Sorry, Rostam.
I just want to clarify for folks again, so you know, listeners all over how widespread is aluminum, both production, recycling and these landfills. When you're looking at sort of. All 50 states. Is it centralized? Is it scattered? Is it kind of everywhere? Just so I get the scope of it and people can really understand.
If someone's working on state policy and they're like, Fuck, I don't know. Do we have aluminum recycling?
Rostam Reifschnieder: It is kind of centralized in the like Midwest region from states like Kentucky, Tennessee, up to like Ohio, Indiana. That area [00:48:00] has a really high concentration of aluminum production. But you also need to have facilities in places like California, in places like Washington, in Texas.
There are also aluminum recyclers out there because it doesn't make sense to ship your scrap all the way back to the Midwest and then ship the aluminum back. It just makes more sense to recycle it right there and not have to move it around so much. So that's why we have aluminum recyclers actually all the way out here in like Los Angeles out on the west coast who are pilot partners right now. So those types of companies definitely exist everywhere. But there's a huge concentration in the Midwest that I mentioned. If you're a policy maker in Ohio, you might already be familiar with with dross and salt cake and landfills. Actually, you might be one of the few.
Definitely policy makers can get involved. I'd also say if you work at a large company, look at the sort of embodied materials in your products. And this can go beyond aluminum too. Aluminum's, just one example. There's all sorts of different [00:49:00] materials, but you can look at where is that aluminum coming from, what facilities, their process sustainable, how much waste are they producing?
Things like that. And then also just, you know, in the day to day, just recycle as much aluminum as you can. Of course.
Quinn: Awesome. That's fantastic. So listen, this has been a delight. I don't want to keep you fellows too long. Got a few last questions we ask everyone, if that's all right. And then we'll get you on outta here.
Rostam Reifschnieder: Yeah, yeah, sounds good.
Julian Davis: Sounds good.
Quinn: Okay. When was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful. And it could be very small. It could be running for class office in fourth grade or could have been last week. I'm curious where you were like, Oh, listen, I can move the needle a little bit.
Julian Davis: For me, it was in high school I got involved in this program called ReSurf, which was basically bringing surfing programs and donated surfboards and wetsuits to kids who couldn't afford them, but really wanted to, had always wanted to surf. It was really sort of, Simple act of just going around asking friends, like [00:50:00] if they had old surfboards or old wetsuits that they weren't gonna use anymore and would be interested in donating and seeing people just say yes to that and be willing to help the cause and be able to support these kids.
That was really incredible. And just showed me, you know, my actions could have an impact. I could actually go out and motivate people to do something. And yeah, that really inspired me to be working on stuff in the impact space today.
Quinn: That's awesome. There's nothing like seeing folks, get out there for the first time.
Especially ones who were either told or unable to get out there in some way. That's super cool. Rostam?
Rostam Reifschnieder: Julian's ReSurf program was awesome. I can attest, firsthand. For me, so in high school I was more into skating than surfing. A lot of my friends were downhill long borders, which is like an extreme form of skateboarding where you bomb a hill going really fast and there's this problem that we all had carrying around a skate tool. So me and my friend came up [00:51:00] with an idea to produce this like product that incorporated the skate tool into a glove that you always had to wear. Basically, we produced like this little skating accessory that we wanted to sell.
Our school had a little maker space that I was heavily involved in, so I helped my friend sort of manufacture this product. We ended up interfacing with manufacturers, distributors. We did a Kickstarter campaign and yeah, seeing people end up using that and just going around and giving skaters our little tool and them being like, Oh dude, this is sick.
That was my first sort of foray into like, entrepreneurship, and yeah, definitely I think gave me the bug.
Quinn: I love that. Did the Kickstarter work?
Rostam Reifschnieder: Yeah. We did a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Quinn: Nice. I mean, those fail more than people think that matters, man. It's testing the market.
Right. That's super rad. That's awesome. Here's the deal with this one. You can't say each other. Who is someone in your life that has positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Rostam Reifschnieder: I have an easy answer for [00:52:00] this one. I'll go first. Alexis O’hanian and also Lissie Garvin at 776 Foundation, obviously hugely impactful over the past six months.
Not only with the grant, but also just the program and the community has been awesome. Beyond that, we have a lot of advisors and sort of mentors, people within the aluminum industry. And within our MIT and Georgetown circles, that have been helping us out. So I'll name drop one and I think Julian will mention others.
But yeah, David Roth. I don't know if you'll, you'll hear this. You've been super helpful over the past couple months. He's in aluminum industry sort of advisor for us. So thank you for everything.
Quinn: Awesome, Julian?
Julian Davis: Yeah, and then I was gonna mention our advisors, Addison and Steve, sort of our technical advisors that have been with us since the very beginning.
Awesome engineers and clean tech entrepreneurs in their own right. And they've been just a huge support, throughout our journey, so really appreciate their support.
Quinn: [00:53:00] Awesome. Last one. In all of your time you've had, what's a book you've read this year that's opened your mind to a topic you hadn't considered before or has actually changed your thinking in some way?
Julian Davis: Yeah, so I am a huge fan of biographies. I think biographies about some of our greatest minds throughout history are a great learning material. One that I read in the past year was Walter Isaacson's biography on Benjamin Franklin. Just really interesting to learn about his story, and sort of the diversity and range of his skill set being one of our most important scientists, businessmen, writers, diplomats, like all in, in one person, during that time is just, I think, really inspiring and teaches us not to just limit ourselves to one specific industry, one specific set of skills to really expand our way of thinking and expand our belief in ourselves and what we can do.
I think that was an influential book for me.
Quinn: I loved that one. I've always wondered reading those. What did the prospect of a life expectancy of like 41 really do to make you [00:54:00] just be like, I've gotta do some shit right now. I mean, he's obviously an exceptional example, but still, you know, it's like clock's ticking. Rostam, what about you?
Rostam Reifschnieder: There's a book that my dad made me read. He said it circulated around his office and they all passed it around and made the next person read it. But once they had all read it, he made me read, it's called Think Again by Adam Grant. The slogan is like the power of knowing what you don't know, and it helps you like develop an exploratory learning mindset.
And I enjoyed it. I would recommend.
Quinn: Awesome. Well, we throw those all up on Bookshop and people love to poke around. So folks, where can our listeners follow you online?
Julian Davis: Find us on our website @ hydrovatech.com. So Hydrova with a V as in Victor, and then tech, t e c h. We're also on LinkedIn, so you can follow us there
Quinn: Gentlemen. Can’t thank you enough for your time today in this very cool problem you're working on, which again, most people don't know about, but they interact with every day. I mean, I'm literally surrounded by aluminum and [00:55:00] it's very cool to know that how much of it has already been a product of recycling, but at the same time, at scale, if we all look around, you realize there's gotta be some byproduct there and there's gotta be something we can do about it. So I appreciate you taking a curious, engaged, innovative perspective on it and tackling something that's gonna be pretty damn important going forward. So thank you for all that and yeah, thank you for your time today.
Rostam Reifschnieder: Thank you so much for doing such a deep dive into it and asking us all these awesome questions.
Me and Julian are nerds about it, so we love talking about it and really enjoy the conversation.
Quinn: Oh, that's always fun. I have a friend who makes skin for robot hands and space and he's one of these people you corner parties and one, he's using like 2% of his brain to talk to me while the rest of it's just like, But also it's like a slot machine.
You ask him one question, you're like, We're gonna be here for an hour cuz he's just not gonna stop. But it's fantastic cuz there's nothing like talking to people about the shit that they're really nerdiest about. So I really appreciate it. So that's it.[00:56:00]
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