Perth-based Element Zero has raised US$10 million in seed funding to harness clean energy to process iron ore, without producing carbon dioxide emissions.

The new company, co-founded by ex-Fortescue leaders, has a patented method of “electro-reduction” utilising an alkaline solution and electric current to separate pure iron from iron ore waste products such as silica, alumina and oxygen.

Founders Michael Masterman — the former CFO of Fortescue Future Industries — and Bart Kolodziejczyk — the former chief scientist of Fortescue Metals Group — say Element Zero’s patented process can work for the hematite ores that dominate the Australian iron ore industry, and other metals such as nickel.

They claim that their start-up can solve the carbon footprint of the Australian iron ore industry without using the hydrogen and membrane technology as was popularised by Fortescue. 

In addition to Fortescue, Masterman also served as executive chair of largest renewable energy company Squadron Energy, was CFO and CIO of Fortescue Future Industries, and a founding shareholder in several multi-billion-dollar startups. Kolodziejczyk has also served as director of hydrogen and clean tech at Boston Consulting Group.

The raise was led by Playground Global, an early-stage venture capital firm with over US$1.2 billion of assets under management that invests in frontier technologies in deep tech and science, including decarbonisation, automation, infrastructure, and genetic engineering.

The funds raised will be used on research and development, engineering, and project development to scale a pilot iron plant.

Renewables to process iron ore

Currently, lower grade iron ore cannot be processed using low carbon energy due to its high temperature requirements.

Element Zero’s electrochemical method of an alkaline solution and electric current allows for lower temperature processing, meaning the materials can be processed using renewables like wind, solar, and hydropower.

Following an 18 month development period, the metals processing start-up is already turning iron ore into pure iron at laboratory scale. The prototype can produce 100 kilograms of zero-carbon iron per day and the company plans to scale up to 1,000kg per day by the end of the year. 

Geosciences Australia says Australia produces around 900,000kg of iron ore annually, with Western Australia producing 99% of that.

“Element Zero will help transform Western Australia from the world’s mine into the world’s foundry, dramatically reducing carbon emissions in the process,” Playground Global co-founder and general partner Peter Barrett said.

“Australia is poised to become a leader in resilient and sustainable global prosperity — its natural wealth in minerals and renewable energy blended with innovation in electrochemistry and new materials will cement its leadership in the energy transformation. 

“Element Zero is a major catalyst in this shift and the Pilbara region in the north of Western Australia stands as the premier location globally to showcase the company’s potential.”

Scalable production of carbon-free metals

“Our processing platform will, for the first time, allow cost-effective and scalable production of carbon-free metals crucial to the iron and steel and critical metals industries,” said Masterman.

“We are excited to have Playground Global join our journey to tackle the decarbonisation of hard-to-abate sectors. Support from Playground Global goes way beyond financial investment, and we are already in deep discussions about developing green iron and green silicon value chains in the US. We are also working with major iron ore miners and iron and steel companies globally.”

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