This Vancouver-based cleantech startup designs closed-loop critical metal extraction processes to eliminate wastewater and work towards net zero emissions by 2050.

Two of the biggest challenges in working toward a more sustainable future and net zero by 2050 are: the amount of water we waste and the limited supply of critical metals we need for everything, from energy-efficient appliances to electric vehicles. Vancouver-based cleantech startup pH7 Technologies tackles both problems by using a pioneering combination of new and old sciences to create closed-loop critical metal extraction processes.

We sat down with pH7 Technologies founder Mohammad Doostmohammadi to learn more about why he believes hydrogen is the key to net zero, how his startup is taking groundbreaking science from lab to commercialization, the challenges of cleantech fundraising, and more.

The journey from Iran to Vancouver’s startup scene

The idea for pH7 traces back years to Doostmohammadi’s roots in Iran, a country where water has long been a scarce and critical resource. “I was born and raised in Iran and back home, you see rivers actually drying out. You see lakes drying out. There’s not enough rain or enough water, so there’s a fight for water all around that area,” he says.

“Meanwhile, we’re wasting lots of water. Wastewater management is a problem that is getting more and more expensive. That was the whole idea behind pH7, including our name––to design mineral processing metal extraction technology that helps mines achieve net zero wastewater and net zero water consumption.”

For those who haven’t browsed their high school chemistry textbooks in a while, the pH scale measures how acidic substances are. Seven is the neutral pH of water.

Doostmohammadi set out to create a closed-loop process that minimizes the water consumption of mines by reusing its chemistry over and over again.

pH7’s core business centres on the extraction of critical metals essential for electrification and hydrogen technology –– the keys to a more sustainable future. The first technology the startup is commercializing extracts Platinum Group Metals (PGMs), which are a group of six rare and expensive critical metals, from end-of-life recyclers and reintegrates them into the circular economy to be deployed in hydrogen technology. This process is important because PGMs are in short supply, and we don’t have enough of them to support the rapidly scaling hydrogen technology that will help us achieve net zero by 2050.

“I believe hydrogen is the key to net zero, because energy storage in the volumes we require cannot only happen through carbon capture.”

Crucially, what pH7 offers is different from carbon capture technology, which Doostmohammadi refers to as “the old-fashioned method of hydrogen protection. “I believe hydrogen is the key to net zero, because energy storage in the volumes we require cannot only happen through carbon capture. We need additional renewable technologies to achieve these targets. Hydrogen is the main element that will play a critical role to get to net zero by 2050.”

Bringing a brand-new science to market

pH7 is also a leader in SolvoMetallurgy––which, if you’ve never heard of it, is an emerging science that uses green solvents to selectively extract metals from ores, concentrates and waste products. While the new field is promising, there hasn’t been much success in commercializing SolvoMetallurgy to date.

“The major challenge is that the cost of SolvoMetallurgy is high because solvents are expensive and not all solvents are green. There are lots of toxic solvents as well,” says Doostmohammadi.

For this reason, unlike some other companies, pH7 doesn’t rely on SolvoMetallurgy alone, but rather sees it as a complement to the other processes it develops. “At pH7, we use SolvoMetallurgy in only a part of our critical metal extraction process. We combine this with organic, inorganic, and electro chemistry to design the complete closed-loop extraction process.”

“Startups and companies play an important role in scaling projects from a beaker in the lab to the final commercialized technology.”

pH7 also works closely with several academic institutions to expedite the often long road between lab research and commercialization. “Promising chemical research is happening at many universities, but the challenge is how do they scale up? Startups and companies play an important role in scaling a project from a beaker in the lab to commercialization in a way academic institutions would find impossible to do themselves.”

Doostmohammadi says that Canada is doing a great job of fostering academic-commercial relationships. “We have, for example, the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) and other government entities working to connect academia with industry, which is amazing.”

pH7 has used such programs to hire recent graduates that have become key members of the team. The company has also partnered with Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia to work on similar projects, with the final goal of commercialization.

Managing geopolitical challenges

Most startups don’t have to worry much about major political or geopolitical shifts, but for pH7, it’s a major concern. “This is a really big challenge, especially when it comes to critical metals. A lot of governments want to keep them in the ground or do not want to trade or export them, so they implement industry-wide bans,” says Doostmohammadi.

He points to China’s export ban of not just critical metals, but any technology used to extract and separate them. The European Union is also instituting protectionist measures, likely soon to be followed by North America.

“Trading critical metals between different regions is getting harder and harder,” Doostmohammadi says. pH7’s response to these moves has been to design modular processes that can be built anywhere close to the supply source.

“Our goal is to grow internationally by building more plants instead of having one centralized plant that everyone is shipping critical metals to,” says Doostmohammadi. “Additionally, by processing materials on site rather than sending them overseas, the carbon footprint and cost of the technology is greatly reduced.”

He says modular plants also allow pH7 to work with any scale of mine, from small players to large players.

Environmental impact alone won’t cut it

This March, pH7 closed their series A financing round, raising $16 million USD from big-name venture capital firms including TDK Ventures, Pangea Ventures, BASF Venture Capital, among others.

pH7 does not take this successful financing round for granted. Doostmohammadi points that “if such a venture existed 10 years ago, no one would fund this because it’s a very long commercialization process. With cleantech and hardtech, funding is not easy. It’s not that you write code and can change it tomorrow if it’s wrong. You have to do R&D. And then it takes two or three months to get results, and then you have to redo it, redo it, redo it until you get it 100% right.”

“You have to have a good business model to present to investors; you can’t just rely on the sustainability outcomes.”

However, he says, awareness of global warming and climate change is helping to inspire more impact-focused investors to fund cleantech.

“It’s still challenging though, because the return on investment isn’t the same as traditional VC models,” says Doostmohammadi. “You have to have a good business model to present to investors; you can’t just rely on the sustainability outcomes. In order to successfully finance these kinds of technologies, you have to show both the environmental impact and the economic impact to make this work––and that’s exactly what we did.”

He also recommends startups to see investors as more than just sources of capital. “Having a good investor is really important. You need someone that is aligned with what you want to achieve, who can help you build your story. You’re not just raising money – you’re bringing on board a partner working with you to build this venture. They have to believe in you, your team and your vision.”

If you would like to learn more about pH7 Technologies, visit their website

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