Companies You Should Care About #10: Carbon Crusher – creating carbon negative roads.

Published 
January 16, 2023
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Welcome to issue #10 of Companies You Should Care About, where we explore interesting companies and founders worth following.

Potholes, chuckholes, nid-de-poule, whatever you want to call them, they can really do some serious damage to your car—never mind getting swallowed whole by one like that poor guy. In 2021, potholes damaged vehicles operated by 1 in 10 drivers in The United States and those same drivers spent an estimated $26.5 billion repairing the problems caused by these pavement menaces.

In New England we like to joke that there are 4 seasons: winter, roadwork season, roadwork season, and roadwork season. Like any place where the summers are hot and the winters are cold, our roads undergo a lot of stress from temperature changes which widen into cracks that expand into potholes. To keep the roads drivable, pavement repair crews are a frequent sight during most of the year.

While having functioning roads is pretty nice, all of this repair activity is terrible for traffic and terrible for the environment. Today we’re looking at a Norwegian startup that aims to tackle both of these issues.

Carbon Crusher is a company with a cool name and a cool mission: to create carbon negative roads. How are they doing it? Let’s find out.

But first, why should you care? TL;DR:

Maintenance and repairs can account for over 50% of the carbon emissions produced by road construction. Carbon Crusher has created a faster, cheaper, and carbon-negative way to keep our roads in good working condition. They aren’t reinventing the wheel, but they are reinventing the road.

Quick Stats 🚅

  • Year founded: 2021
  • Number of founders: 3
  • Industry: Green Construction
  • HQ: Oslo, Norway
  • Total funding: $5M seed round
  • Annual Revenue: $1.5M (2021)

Background stuff 📚

*We’re going to talk about climate change today so let’s just agree on a few things. Whether you think humans are causing 100% of climate change, 0% of climate change, or some % in between, I hope we all agree that a changing climate is not great for humanity. CO2 definitely makes the earth warmer and if reducing the amount of CO2 we emit MAY prevent the climate from changing then reducing CO2 emissions is an endeavor worth pursuing. But if your attitude is “f**k the environment” don’t worry, Carbon Crusher’s product is also cheaper and more durable than their competitors’.*

Since the creation of the first paved roads in the late 1800’s, humans have managed to cover the planet in over 22 million kilometers of asphalt and concrete streets. People really like paving things.

And this love affair with paving our streets makes sense. Paved roads are safer, allow us to get from place to place much faster, and help our cars get better mileage. Fun!

Unfortunately, building and maintaining these roads is absolutely terrible for the environment. Not fun!

Research has shown that maintenance can account for up to 50% of total CO2 emissions from that road over a 50 year period. How much CO2 are we talking about here?

A study in Spain modeled the amount of CO2 emissions required to maintain a 2 lane road. Their research found that maintenance work amounted to 10,635 tons of CO2 over a 50 year time period. That’s a similar amount of CO2 that would be released from flying a commercial jet around the world 20 times—a distance equivalent to flying that same jet to the moon and back. Flying a jet to the moon would also take over a month and the crew would definitely run out of snacks before then, so I wouldn’t recommend trying it.

Oh, and that 10,625 tons of CO2 over 50 years is just for 1 kilometer of road. When you multiple 10,625 tons by the 22 million kilometers of pavement on our planet you start to get a sense of how big this issue is.

Add on top of that high costs to repave a road ($1M+ per kilometer) and it’s not hard to see that this is an important process could be a lot better for tax-payers and for the environment.

How Carbon Crusher Works 📊

To begin, Carbon Crusher does exactly what their name indicates and crushes the existing, damaged road surface into very fine gravel.

Currently, Carbon Crusher is doing this with a customized pavement cutter and crusher pulled behind a conventional tractor. But, with a name like Carbon Crusher, that’s not nearly a cool enough solution. Eventually, these machines may run on hydrogen or electric power and look something more like this…

Once the old road has been pulverized into fine gravel, a bonding agent called lignin is added to firmly hold the particles together. Traditionally, this step would be accomplished with bitumen—a sticky, semi-sold form of petroleum created during crude oil distillation.

The use of lignin, an organic polymer found in wood, is a key differentiator in Carbon Crusher’s road repair process. Here’s co-founder Haakon Brunell on why lignin is so important:

“Lignin is discarded as waste from paper production. It is usually burned, which leads to more carbon emissions into the atmosphere…Tests have shown that the lignin composition is as strong as bitumen, while it is cheaper and able to continue the sacred work of trees – to absorb carbon from the environment. Thus, lignin paved roads become carbon negative.”

Within a few weeks, the lignin fully sets, bonding the crushed gravel together. By keeping the crushed material on site (instead of first transporting it to an asphalt recycling center) and using a carbon-negative material in the process, Carbon Crusher is able to reduce CO2 emissions in multiple ways.

Lignin is not only cheaper but also more flexible than bitumen, which could prevent cracking of the road surface and extend the life of the pavement.

According to Carbon Crusher’s leadership, they view this repair process as the first of many products the company will launch. In addition to the 8-ton hardware they’ve built to crush up the road, Carbon Crusher has also created a software tool called Sky Roads—which analyzes the road surface before, during, and after maintenance—and have additional products in development now.

Why I’m excited 🤩

Carbon Crusher is a fantastic example of a company that is competing in multiple dimensions. Not only is their product better for the environment, it’s also cheaper and potentially more durable than traditional methods—a classic win-win-win situation.

And then there’s the TAM (total addressable market). As Carbon Crusher co-founder Haakon Brunell has said, “there are terrible roads everywhere.” With infrastructure becoming a priority for many governments, Carbon Crusher is well positioned to grow into this massive, expanding market.

According to the US government, 1 out of every 5 miles of highway or major road in the United States is in poor condition. And that’s just in one country. Once a road surface starts to deteriorate the process of cracks and potholes forming only accelerates—so this is an issue that needs to be addressed in the very near-term future.

If Carbon Crusher can capitalize on the immediate need for large amounts of road repairs, they may also open the door to grow their Sky Roads maintenance and monitoring software into a robust subscription business.

On the other hand 🖖

Carbon Crusher is still early on their journey to changing the way we maintain our roads. Like most things that involve government, convincing municipalities to switch away from old methods of road repair will likely be a long process.

In the face of those challenges, can the company continue to grow at a pace that will attract capital and press attention? We’ll just have to head out on the highway and find out.

Go one deeper 🐟

You can learn more about Carbon Crusher by listening to co-founder Haakon Brunell on this podcast from May, 2022 or from this Fast Company profile of the company.

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