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Practical Magic

An alternative to copper that’s less carbon-intensive?

Carbon nanotube startup DexMat, born at Rice University, has materials scientists abuzz.

Dexmat fiber

DexMat's fiber, held by CEO Bryan Hassin.

The climate tech press often bemoans shortages of lithium, a metal crucial for the development of electric vehicle batteries. Far less digital ink has been spilled over the scarcity of another metal that you could argue is even more crucial to the clean energy transition: Copper, which S&P Global recently dubbed the "metal of electrification."   

Copper is an integral component not just of transmission wires (search "copper theft" and you’ll realize what a nagging issue it is already for utilities), it’s also crucial for scaling up production of solar panels, wind turbines and EVs.

So what if you could commercialize a material that possesses the conductivity of copper and is stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum? That’s the moonshot vision of DexMat, a Houston-based carbon nanotube startup born at Rice University and built on patents by the late Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Rick Smalley and his collaborator Matteo Pasquali, the startup’s founder and chief science adviser.

DexMat has already benefited from more than $20 million in non-dilutive funding in the form of grants from two U.S. Air Force research agencies, the Department of Energy, NASA, the National Science Foundation and Advanced Functional Fabrics of America. That money has helped develop niche applications that are already generating commercial revenue for the company, such as wiring in plane wings that can help de-ice them electrothermally rather than through the glycol-based chemicals currently used to handle this.

In early March, DexMat snagged $3 million in seed funding from Shell Ventures, Overture Climate VC, Climate Avengers and some other unidentified backers to commercialize its technology and explore potential applications in the energy, automotive, aviation and wearables sectors. One would-be killer app: lighter wind turbine blades. The company claims its material, called Galvorn, has the potential to "displace" three gigatons of industrial carbon dioxide emissions annually not only by supporting clean energy additions to the grid but also by reducing the production impact of steel, aluminum and Kevlar. DexMat also found itself a new CEO with oodles of previous climate tech venture experience, Bryan Hassin, who most recently was co-founder and CEO of Third Derivative.

Hassin, who studied the business plan of "thousands" of climate tech startups in his role at Third Derivative, said DexMat fills a "major void where we are not seeing ambitious shots on goal" and is among the most "impactful" he has evaluated. His immediate mission is to scale up the company’s ability to produce Galvorn at a lower cost, starting with an expansion of manufacturing capacity. 

Galvorn is made by splitting hydrocarbons, chiefly found in the combustion of petroleum and natural gas, according to the company’s marketing materials. The material acts as a form of carbon storage (sequestration, anyone?) and takes several forms, including a mesh that could be used in composite panels, electrodes and garments; a fiber for conductive wire, power lines and motor windings; and a film for electromagnetic shieldings, batteries and antennas. 

Shomik Dutta, managing partner at Overture Climate VC, an early-stage VC fund that has made about a dozen investments, told me that his firm invested in DexMat after being introduced to the company by Ramamoorthy Ramesh, who led the U.S. government’s SunShot initiative, and another well-respected materials scientist.

"DexMat’s potential climate impact gets us dizzy," Dutta wrote about Overture’s investment, a sentiment echoed during our conversation. "More efficient and lighter weight vehicles and aircraft can extend range and reduce fuel consumption. Higher electrical conductivity in batteries and supercapacitors can improve performance in wind and solar and storage. DexMat can displace steel cores in utility transmission lines with a stronger and lighter substitute that is also more conductive, which can help move utility towers farther apart and drive down the cost of deploying new transmission lines. In the built environment, incorporating these fibers in the production of concrete and other building materials can create stronger and more durable buildings that extend lifespan. The list goes on."

In and of itself, the carbon nanotube business is nothing to sneeze at: Research from Fortune Business Insights predicts the sector could grow from about $5.3 billion in 2021 to $10.5 billion by 2028. When you also consider that one of the primary feedstocks for Galvorn is methane, its potential to address emissions for carbon-intensive materials processes becomes even more intriguing. "Of everything we have touched, this has the potential to have the most impact in the most places," Dutta said.

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