Oliver Gunasekara, CEO and co-founder of Impossible Mining, recently sat down with me to share something about the company and what inspired him to deal with critical metals, EV dough materials and the mining industry. This is the first part of our interview. In this section we discuss:
- Rediscovery of the mining industry
- Inspired by the worst forest fires in 2020
- Turning supply chain challenges into solutions
Rediscovery of the mining industry
Impossible Mining, Oliver told me, is a startup focused on rediscovering the mining industry with a special focus on battery metals. He pointed out that increasing amounts of battery metals such as nickel and cobalt are needed to switch from fossil fuels.
“What we are trying to do in Impossible Mining is to provide these materials, but we are doing it in a far more responsible way than the mining industry has historically done. They really focus on ESG as the primary driver when we think about the resources we are looking for and how we actually extract resources and what we leave behind. ”
ESG is an acronym for “Environmental, Social and Governance”, which was a hot topic recently when Tesla CEO Elon Musk criticized what is considered a pro-ESG investment, and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began researching Potential greening of fossil fuels. industry. This happened after Tesla was kicked out of the S&P 500 ESG index while Exxon and other oil companies were involved in it. The SEC wants more transparency for the indices. You can read more about it here. The basic point Oliver made was that Impossible Mining aims to do things in an environmentally and socially responsible way.
Inspired by the worst forest fires in 2020
One thing I’ve always been curious to know is the inspiration behind a company or project. This is the core of the job, what makes someone do something. I asked Oliver what inspired him to work in mining, what problems he wanted to deal with. Oliver told me that Impossible Mining focuses on responsibly digging and refining the seabed as a way to enable the transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy.
Impossible Mining is actually the third company that Oliver founded and ran. Oliver told me that he was inspired by the worst fires he had ever seen, which happened immediately after he sold his last company.
“I live in the Bay Area – San Jose – and I think that around September 2020 we had the worst forest fires I have ever experienced. The sky turned orange and I know it was pretty well documented. The air quality was terrible. And at that point, I really told myself that if I’m going to do another company – another startup – it has to be in the space of climate technology, because I really feel like we don’t have a huge amount of time to influence the climate crisis.
“I also believe that innovative technology is really the way to solve some of these great challenges that lie ahead. So that was really the genesis. From that moment on, I started researching. I had sold my last company about a year earlier and was trying to think about what to do.
“Researching and reading as much as I could, I came to the conclusion that batteries are the most important component of our electrification, and therefore away from fossil fuels, obviously. In electric vehicles, it is a source of energy, but also for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. You need this energy when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining. Battery-based energy storage is becoming critical. And I came to the conclusion that there are some real challenges around the supply chain of components, metals that are part of these batteries. “
Turning supply chain challenges into solutions
Constraints in the supply chain have proven to be challenging for all types of industries, and this includes climate technology space. Tesla has published news for the survival of these restrictions while other car manufacturers are struggling. I asked Oliver what he could do to turn these challenges into a solution. After all, innovation is often born from accepting a challenge and not only solving it, but also turning that challenge into a solution.
When he looked at the existing metal supply chain for batteries, Oliver noticed that there seemed to be three basic problems.
“The first was that we simply did not have enough of this material at our disposal. With mining, you go to the most profitable mining first. That means high grades and easy access. 50 to 100 years ago, we could get nickel levels of 1-2%. And they were not very far away. There was good infrastructure in mining – a railway line or a highway. But these days, all that has already been excavated, so the mining companies are forced to go to much lower classes. In fact, there are a lot of mines trying to be allowed in the United States that have a content of about 0.2% nickel. ”
He explained that with lower grades, mining companies have to dig up much more land, which affects the economy, but also the environment. This was just one of the problems.
“Basically, we ran out of this material on earth and we had to build a lot of infrastructure to get it. It also happens that these mines are quite far away. So you have to invest in a highway or a village to support it. ”
The ESG is also another problem – displacing people, especially indigenous peoples, to access and build a mine.
“One of the problems with mining that is almost never talked about is the fact that you almost always have to displace people. You have to build a village, a highway, and often people live there. So you often end up displacing people, often forcibly, often using the courts, and often indigenous people. And that is really sad. And that also leads to delays. The average time to get a mine permit in the West can be between 12-15 years, because you have to forcibly remove people. There is a lawsuit, then he goes to court and it takes a long time. “
Another problem, Oliver said, is the mining and delivery of materials without a large ESG print.
“Destruction of the environment, forced displacement of people, and what about the tailings?” Often with a mine, you have to use a lot of chemicals – a lot of acid to really do the refining. After you have mined the ore, you have to remove the metal from the ore, and that often involves the use of acid. And that acid, unfortunately, does not disperse. It is usually covered in so-called tailings dams.
“These tailings dams also have a habit of collapsing because they are not managed properly, and every year several people die from the tailings disaster. In fact, a few years ago, a major disaster occurred in Brazil that killed more than 280 people when one tailings dump collapsed. This is another problem. How do we get this metal without destroying the environment and people? And that’s what we’re trying to do. “
The third fundamental problem Oliver is dealing with with Impossible Mining is competition with China, which plays intelligently. China has given loans to countries like Indonesia and African countries where these metals are abundant. And in exchange for these loans, China gets materials for the next 10-20 years.
“And that means that if we want to make batteries, we will probably have to buy this material from China. And that is not much different from the fact that Europe is dependent on Russian oil. I don’t think that’s a good solution for us, strategically. “
Follow part 2.
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