Metalplant Exits Stealth, Announces Novel Technology Combining Nickel Phytomining With Enhanced Rock Weathering To Produce Nickel And CDR

Metalplant Exits Stealth, Announces Novel Technology Combining Nickel Phytomining With Enhanced Rock Weathering To Produce Nickel And CDR - Carbon Herald
The Metalplant co-founders Laura Wasserson, Eric Matzner and Sahit Muja together with the farming team on location in Albania. Image: Metalplant

Enhanced rock weathering (ERW) is turning into one of the hottest areas of carbon removal at the moment. The latest addition to the field is called Metalplant and the startup, coming out of stealth mode today, has an interesting twist that it thinks will allow it to scale rapidly and at a low cost – the company uses special hyperaccumulating plants to recover nickel from the soils that is released as their minerals weather.

“The goal of Metalplant is to help us overcome the problem of nickel being released during enhanced weathering, and by recovering pure nickel from the plant tissues, we can turn nickel from a weakness of the weathering process, into an economically valuable strength,” said Eric Matzner, CEO and one of three Co-Founders of Metalplant.

Eric Matzner is no stranger to the ins and outs of enhanced weathering with olivine, having previously started the non-profit, Project Vesta, which later became the coastal enhanced weathering company, Vesta. Metalplant is looking at enhanced weathering on land and through a new lens, building what Matzner claims are the world’s first “dedicated enhanced weathering commercial farms” because even though they are farming for nickel, their farms are engineered around the primary mission of carbon dioxide removal.

Modeling themselves as blurring the lines between mining and farming, their vertically integrated process involves them controlling their own olivine resources and directly operating their farms in the surrounding serpentine soils. Speaking to us from the company’s site in Northern Albania, Eric maps out a vision of ERW that reaches beyond the scope of the industry at this point in time. But why decide to start in such a location?

“In the standard enhanced rock weathering concept you ‘bring the rocks to the farm,’ in our case, we flip that on its head and ‘bring the farm to the rocks,’ removing the transportation issue, which is another potential shortcoming. Our process started with a clean sheet design and we engineered it to try and overcome every shortcoming of ERW we knew of. These serpentine soils, which are themselves weathered from hydrated olivine, naturally contain high levels of nickel and other metals, and are the native habitat of our nickel hyperaccumulator plants.”

An experimental CDR field developed by Metalplant in Albania. Image: Metalplant

Over 11% of Albania’s surface area is composed of serpentine soils that aren’t ideal for food crops due to their natural metal content. Metalplant operates on farmland that sits on top of a 500 square kilometer outcropping of these minerals that is a part of the Mirdita Ophiolite. Ophiolites are parts of the seafloor that have been emplaced upon the surface of the earth, and contain layers of olivine that can be kilometers thick. 

“We are currently operating in a valley surrounded on all sides by olivine and serpentine mountains, which are silicate minerals. While my other co-Founder Laura Wasserson and I met in Silicon Valley, this innovation hot spot of ERW where we are farming now, we call Silicate Valley. You couldn’t find a better place in the world than Albania to incubate this technology,” Matzner added.

Metalplant Co-Founder, Sahit Muja, who was born and raised in the valley where Metalplant currently operates, adds, “Albania has some of the highest-quality and most vast olivine resources in the world. By accelerating the breakdown of these rocks in their natural environment and recovering the critical mineral nickel, we can make Albania a global leader in both the carbon dioxide removal field and in the green energy transition.”

Phytomining is having a sort of “moment” on its own, with the US Department of Energy (DOE)’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), recently announcing up to $10 million in funding to explore using plants to extract critical materials from soil.

“In order to accomplish the goals laid out by President Biden to meet our clean energy targets, and support our economy and national security, it’s going to take all-hands-on-deck approach and innovative solutions,” said ARPA-E Director Evelyn N. Wang. “By exploring phytomining to extract nickel as the first target critical material, ARPA-E aims to achieve a cost-competitive and low-carbon footprint extraction approach needed to support the energy transition.”

While Eric says he is actively looking or partners to apply with to that program, and that while they are a US-based multi-national company, their current deployment is taking place in Albania. Though they do have biomass, nickel bio-ore, and seeds that they can make available for research.

Pictured below are their dense fields of yellow flowers, which are a northern hyperaccumulator species related to Odontarrhena chalcidica (formelry known as Alyssum murale).

Image: Metalplant

This closely related species is among the most well-studied plants in the hyperaccumulator field and is native to Albania. These plants grow on high-pH, metalliferous soils and absorb over 100 times the amounts of nickel in their roots, stems and foliage, compared to non-hyperaccumulating plants, but without suffering any harmful effects. Metalplant’s species is of an even rarer sub-class of hyperaccumulators because it’s biomass can become greater than 1% nickel by dry weight, a class known as “hypernickelophores.”

Metalplant has partnered with Profesor Aida Bani of the Agricultural University of Tirana, who has spent over 15 years optimizing similar hyperaccumulator plants on Albania soil. She is widely recognized as one of the “parents” of the phytomining/agromining technology (along with Rufus Chaney).

Professor Bani notes, “These plants are able to grow up in the ultramafic mountains and in mines on nearly 100% serpentine soils, so with even high levels of minerals added to the soils, we see no major issues or negative impacts on the plant’s growth. We know from my prior work with colleagues on polluted industrial sites in Elbasan, that repeated cropping of hyperaccumulators can remediate soils and lower the availabe pool of nickel in the soil.”

When it comes to traditional food crops and their integration with enhanced weathering, Matzner adds that “Corn, soy, and wheat have a very specific range of parameters of ideal growth like pH and that is being optimzied for food yields instead of for CDR yields from weathering.” Though Eric notes that a recently published paper by Beerling et al (2024) showed that in a long-term largescale EW field trial, there was a boost to crop yields by 16% over two years.

“We, like all of the other ERW companies, researchers, and collaborators, greatly appreciate the work they are doing as a community to help advance ERW. Carbon removal and ERW especially has come a long way. When I started in this field over 5 yeras ago, Professor Beerling’s ERW oral session at the AGU Conference was turned into a poster session, and now ERW has its own conferences, such as the upcoming one at Yale.”

“As is found all across the climate and carbon removal space, the people in the ERW sub-field of CDR, are all working with a sort of camaraderie together against the same goal of fighting climate change. The ERW field is big enough for all of these companies and the industry is ready to scale based on billions of tonnes of available waste feedstock that has built up over the last century. In this way, we don’t consider our process directly competitive because we are working with different minerals, on different soil types, with different plants and operating our own farms.”

“There is a lot we share when it comes to MRV, but some of the problems we are working on, such as understanding if there is an upper limit on carbon removal per hectare per year, most of the other companies are not going to even come up against. This is part of why some consider this a next-generation enhanced weathering technology, and why we consider our farms to currently be the only dedicated commercial, enhanced rock weathering farms in the world,” Eric added.

Weathering and Phytomining Process

Enhanced weathering works by accelerating the release of magnesium or calcium cations from silicate  minerals, which when they come into contact with CO2 and water, forces the CO2 to become stored as alkalinity, dissolved in water as the molecule bicarbonate. The bicarbonate then travels through rivers to the ocean where the large majority of it is said to become stored for around 10,000 years (with some small amount of re-release upon entry to the ocean). 

Olivine is known to be one of the fastest weathering minerals, as well as having one the highest carbon removal capacities per tonne due to its high magnesium content. One tonne of weathered olivine can remove a bit more than one tonne of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, yet because the mineral contains trace levels of nickel (around ~0.33% in Metalplant’s case), it is considered a problem if placed on food crop farmlands. So to date, olivine is not used (or used at very low doses) for weathering, in favor of the mineral basalt, even though basalt is 3-5X less efficient per tonne at removing carbon dioxide.

The process of using nickel hyperaccumulator plants to recover metals from the soil is known as “phytomining,” and the full chain going from growing the plants through to pure nickel salts is known as “agromining.” Metalplant is the first to demonstrate the real world combination of ERW and phytomining for the recovery and production of carbon negative metals, a process from quarry to metal extraction, which Metalplant has a filed patent on.

Metalplant starts by characterizing soil and geochemical baseline data for use in carbon removal measurements. Then Metalplant quarries nearby olivine-serpentine harzburgite minerals and places them on to idle, previously farmed serpentine fields. The minerals are then mixed into the soil and planted with nickel hyperaccumulating plants. Metalplant has partnered with Professor David Beerling’s research group at University of Sheffield, along with Rothamsted Institute in the UK, to help quantify the carbon dioxide removal in their farm fields.

The collaborating teams use direct measurements of groundwater and soil geochemistry with a focus on key weathering indicators like magnesium and inorganic carbon concentrations. The data is then integrated into data-driven simulations using an advanced version of Sheffield’s peer-reviewed, Phreeqc-based 1D reactive transport model that has been calibrated with site-specific soil cores and hydrogeological data.

Image: Metalplant

This approach is planned to be further refined, adapted, and expanded upon in order to be compliant with existing and planned ERW methodologies for carbon dioxde removal crediting. Their integrated approach was explored by working from data generated from a 32-plot field trial investigating eight different rock application rates, organized in a randomized complete block design, as pictured below:

Image: Metalplant

As the minerals weather, Metalplant continues to operate the farm throughout the growing season, working to increase the biomass of the plants because all things equal, the more biomass volume per hectare, generally the more nickel they can recover. The literature on hyperaccumulators reports that some cultivars have achieved around 400 kilograms of nickel per hectare, with plants 2% nickel yielding 20 tonnes of biomass per Ha.

Metalplant provided these photos of biomass on one of their farms being harvested:

Image: Metalplant

Metalplant then reduces the biomass through pyrolysis or other technologies and using hydrometallurgy processes is able to draw the nickel out of the biomass and recovers pure nickel sulfate salts (which is the preferred form of nickel used in EV cathodes).

Image: Metalplant

“Our rock is ⅓ of 1 percent (0.33%) nickel, so we have to weather 300 tonnes of olivine to get 1 tonne of nickel out. This would be considered some of the lowest grade nickel ore in the world, but for us looking through the carbon removal lens, these are some of the highest grade CDR minerals in the world,” says Matzner when explaining the outsized potential volume of CDR they can remove relative to each tonne of nickel produced.

Metalplant’s Co-Founder and COO Laura Wasserson weighed in on this topic adding, “Typical production of nickel is extremely carbon intensive, requires massive industrial complexes to be built, commonly requires deforestation, displaces indigenous communities and leads to environmental and human health hazards.  It’s an incredibly destructive process, which is representative of the ‘dirty little secret’ of the clean energy transition, in the need for abundant metals and current sourcing.”

Over 50% of the world’s over 3 million tonnes of yearly nickel production is now occurring in Indonesia. The process is highly destructive, requiring the removal of forests to dig below and reach nickel laterite ores which are at most a few percent nickel. They then use mostly coal fired power plants to increase the purity, leading to some nickel having a CO2 footprint of 20-70 tonnes, much higher than most other energy transition metals:

Image: visualcapitalist.com, courtesy of Metalplant

“We’ve had partners carry out life cycle assessments combined with techno-economic analysis modeled up to megatonne scale CDR units, including our own mining, grinding, crushing, transport, potential remissions of CDR in the ocean, and direct power sourcing of our own solar farms (using 2030 pricing and including the associated embodied emissions). Our process can still potentially attain greater than 70% net efficiency. And depending on scale, current market prices of nickel and CDR, and our net nickel and CDR yields per year, our combined process can be profitable…though as a startup, we are not there yet today. There is no way our business would be viable without CDR revenue,” Matzner said.

The company plans to sell a suite of products. Their flagship product being a combination of a given quantity of net carbon dioxide removal along with a quantity of nickel salts. They call this product NegativeNickel™ and say their ideal customers are green steel producers and EV suppliers. At 70% efficiency on 300 tonnes of weathered olivine, that gives them around 200 tonnes of net CDR per tonne of nickel produced. They also have a product of their clean nickel from hyperaccumulators only, they call HyperNickel™, which is just the nickel and leaves them unallocated CDR left over to sell to others.

With both carbon removal and the critical mineral as revenue sources, Metalplant may have a chance to “weather” any ups and downs in either of those markets, reducing the financial risk while providing the potential demand needed to help drive the upscaling of their process.

Metalplant notes that they are cautious in their work, not wanting to cause any environmental harm while trying to help the environment, and that they are working with the local authorities to follow all relevant environmental laws, while going above and beyond the safety requirements when it comes to potential risks. They also have additional mineral pre-processing techniques being innovated on and implemented to remove other elements in olivine like chromium from the minerals before they make it to the field. They can also recover nutrients from the biomass such as potassium, and then re-apply it to the field in a circular way.

Metalplant co-founders Eric Matzner, Laura Wasserson and Sahit Muja. Image: Metalplant

Laura adds, “there are many challenges to ensure our process is earth-friendly, and we need to be careful about the decisions ahead of us when it comes to scaling. Will we be able to avoid using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides? Is there a way to scale a crop without falling into the pitfalls of monocrops and the negative impacts on ecosystems? I believe there is, and we have a lot to learn from the organic and regenerative agriculture movements to get there.”

Their work also directly engages and involves the local community, who make up most of their Albanian employees. As a part of their community benefits program and environmental justice work, the company has held community engagement events and responded to the communities needs for assistance in helping land owners file the proper paper work to receive legal titles to their land. Metalplant pays well above the market rate for their otherwise idle land. The Muja family also maintains the roads in the area and helped build the local school. They work to make sure the needs of the community are heard and met, and that all aspects of environmental justice are integrated as core tenants of their process.

Metalplant has been working in secret for over 2 years on this technology, having raised $3.7m to date from carbon removal focused firms and angels. Their funding round was led by Carbon Removal Partners and Carbon Drawdown Initiative, with support from Climate Capital, AirMiners SPV, Collis & Cyan Ta’eed, and James Veraldi among others and Eric says they are currently in the process of raising more to help them scale up.

With investors on board and a proof of concept largely validated, Metalplant is looking for commercial customers for their nickel and carbon dioxide removal products, and at the same time will begin to 3X-5X their farming operations this year. Given the gigatonne challenge of removing carbon dioxide, having megatonne scale nickel revenues to support the process could very well allow this approach to be one that makes a significant difference.

Read more: Eion Makes First Delivery Of Enhanced Rock Weathering Carbon Removal To Stripe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts
Translate »
Total
0
Share