Reducing industrial waste and leaving the world in better shape for future generations is what gets Avertana’s commercial director James Obern out of bed in the morning.
“In terms of a driver and job satisfaction I couldn’t ask for much more.”
Avertana was originally conceived of seven years ago by three entrepreneurs who were then colleagues at LanzaTech, a New Zealand biotech company now globally recognised for revolutionising the way we think about waste carbon.
Obern says that back in 2012 he and co-founders Sean Molloy and Sherif Ibrahim began turning their attention to other industrial waste streams beyond flue gas emissions.
“There was a large mountain of steelmaking slag visible from the LanzaTech pilot plant and when Sherif pointed out that the slag was rich in titanium, we began thinking ‘what if’?”
Today, that ‘what if’ has grown into Avertana. The company has developed a patented extraction technology which turns steelmaking residues into essential raw materials: titanium dioxide, gypsum, alum and magnesium sulphate. These products are used in everyday applications including paint, building materials, water treatment, paper making and fertiliser.
With its ground-breaking technology, Avertana has moved beyond lab and pilot-plant phase and is now operating a pre-commercial demonstration plant for its process out of a 1000sqm warehouse in South Auckland.
The next step is to engage global partners to ramp up its process to industrial scale. And for this world-first technology, the opportunity is huge.
“Nobody has got to the stage we’re at today. Over the past few decades there were several projects trying to use slag to make titanium, but hurdles such as technical and economic feasibility and corporate strategic shifts stopped them from going ahead. We have done it.” Obern says.
China is an obvious market, with the Chinese government putting increasing regulatory pressure on the steel industry to reduce waste, and shutting down plants that do not comply. The same has been seen in recent years for small and inefficient titanium producers.
Opportunities have also been identified in South Africa, Russia, South East Asia and elsewhere.
“For example, in South Africa there is over 40 million tonnes of stockpiled slag sitting unused from a closed steel mill. In Russia there is large a steel mill with slag currently going to the cement industry. Our technology can ensure this material is processed far more efficiently and capture greater economic value, with minimal environmental impact.”
Avertana is based in LevelTwo, the Auckland innovation hub which also spawned two of New Zealand’s most successful companies, Rocket Lab and LanzaTech. The location is an undeniable advantage, with Avertana benefitting from the incredible energy that comes from like-minds bouncing ideas off each other.
It also has a strong collaborative relationship with New Zealand’s innovation agency, Callaghan Innovation.
“[Through Callaghan] we’ve had great funding support throughout the company’s growth cycle, and have also benefitted significantly from access to specialist technical services and product development support,” Obern says.
This article was first published in EMA Business Plus magazine.
C-Prize 2019 - Empowering New Zealand's next generation of environmental innovators.
Updated: 2 October 2019