Activating Carbon – The FAQs with ADA Carbon Solutions’ Brian Leen

July 30, 2015

How is carbon activation tackling mercury in coal and protecting the environment?

 
John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good. This is the Houlihan Lokey edition of Green Is Good, and we are so honored to have with us today Brian Leen. He is the president and CEO of ADA Carbon Solutions. Welcome to Green Is Good, Brian. Brian Leen: Thank you. John Shegerian: You know, Brian, before we get talking about your great company, ADA Carbon Solutions, can you share a little bit about your story. How did you even get to founding a carbon solution company? Brian Leen: So my background is in the specialty chemical industry. For 20 years, I was with a company called Sun Chemical. It’s the largest graphic arts company in the world. John Shegerian: Ah. Brian Leen: So a big part of my heritage was in organic pigments. So a very different business. In 2010, the private equity company that owned that business came and recruited me, and I moved my family and we went out to Colorado and got started running the carbon business. John Shegerian: And what does ADA Carbon Solutions do really? Can you share with our audience a little bit about the mission of your business? Brian Leen: Sure. So our business is really founded on the premise of removing mercury from coal-fired power plant pollution. What we do is we manufacture activated carbon. Activated carbon – believe it or not – is a very, very common material that you would find in many places in your own homes. Water filters or other materials that you would commonly see in your home or that would be used in manufacturing products in your home. It’s a very common material. But the products that we manufacture we actually engineer very specialized carbons that extract mercury from the pollution or the emissions of coal-fired power plants. John Shegerian: Wow. Brian Leen: Yeah. John Shegerian: How big is this problem in the United States, and how big is this problem around the world? Brian Leen: Well, it has gotten a lot of attention really over the last 20 years. Mercury is a really well-known carcinogen. John Shegerian: Yeah. Brian Leen: Neurotoxin. John Shegerian: Right. Brian Leen: It creates and can result in birth defects and unborn fetuses, so it’s a nasty material. Research has been going on since the late ‘90s on how to extract it from coal-fired power plants. So it’s a target area for reducing mercury in our environment. John Shegerian: And how does your carbon solution really work? How do you remove the mercury from the emissions? Brian Leen: So when you think of activated carbon think of it as almost like a pumice material. John Shegerian: Right. Brian Leen: So this is a very small particle of carbon. John Shegerian: Yes. Brian Leen: That has an enormous amount of internal surface area. Pores actually. So it’s those pores that create the filterability capability of an activated carbon. So what we do is we manufacture very small powdered material – activated carbons – that are injected into the flue gas. John Shegerian: Ah. Brian Leen: During that period of time and that contact with mercury, it absorbs that mercury into those pores. It sequesters the mercury and is then safely disposed of. John Shegerian: So interesting. And for our listeners and our audience out there that want to learn more about ADA Carbon Solutions, please go to www.ada-cs.com. When they brought you in to run the company, how big was the company then? Brian Leen: Actually, it was a startup. This business was really built green-field starting in 2008. John Shegerian: Ah. Brian Leen: The factory really didn’t even start producing carbons until 2010, and today we believe that we’ve got over 40 percent of the overall capability or production that serves this particular market sector. John Shegerian: They saw this need and they recruited you to run a startup, really. Who was then your competition in this since it was a start-up? Brian Leen: Sure. So there are several different other carbon producers in the market today. The two larger ones were companies by the name of Calgon and another company by the name of Norit that recently was acquired by Cabot Corporations. John Shegerian: But you have started this thing from scratch with your investors and you are now the No. 1 brand. Brian Leen: Yeah. John Shegerian: Wow. Are most of your clients here in the United States? Brian Leen: Here in the United States and Canada. The customers that we serve are the coal-fired power plants, as well as waste-to-energy facilities. Most people may not realize this, but some of your kind of municipal trash, the trash that you throw out every day…. John Shegerian: Yeah. Brian Leen: Is actually burned to make power. John Shegerian: Right. Brian Leen: And those plants require our technology as well. John Shegerian: Really? That’s becoming a more – well, I don’t know if more popular – but a more publicized way of disposing of waste now. Here at the conference I saw the people from Covanta. Covanta runs plants like that so they need your technology. Brian Leen: Exactly. Yeah. John Shegerian: To absorb the mercury. Then once your carbon activated material absorbs the mercury, when you say that “gets disposed,” how does that get disposed then? Brian Leen: So in a coal-fired power plant one of the pollution control devices is what they call a particulate matter collection place. John Shegerian: Right. Brian Leen: So that is a bag house or some sort of electro static participator. Our material comes out with the fly ash and is disposed of with the fly ash. Some people asked the question, “Is mercury ever re-leached into the environment?” Leaching studies have been done on carbon that has been put through this process, and no, it does not re-leach into the environment. That’s the reason – by the way – it was chosen, is the technology for using it. John Shegerian: So basically, it becomes inert once it gets absorbed. Brian Leen: Exactly. John Shegerian: Wow. What other applications are there for your product? Brian Leen: Well, again, mercury capture is important not only in coal but in waste facilities. Also, cement facilities, believe it or not. So people that make cement require our product to do the same thing – to remove mercury from their flue gas environment. Their mercury comes from the limestone not from coal. But activated carbon – again, as I mentioned – is a ubiquitous material. It’s used in water filtration. It’s used in de-colorization. So, for example, for people who see clear corn syrup and colored corn syrup. The big difference really is that the colored corn syrup has been put through a carbon filter. There are point-of-use water filters, air filters. It’s used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals. So it’s a very prolific, very effective filter. John Shegerian: I’ve heard that there is mercury – obviously – in light bulbs. So in the light bulb recycling, industry people have talked to me about carbon filters being used. Have you done any business in that area? Brian Leen: No. Typically, those applications require different kind of sizes and shapes, and that’s not a market we’ve participated in. John Shegerian: That’s a different market. So now that you have taken the dominant position here in the United States and in Canada – the 40 percent market share – you’re a young guy, where are you going to be driving now the growth of your company and further applications with regards to innovation and the R&D that you’re doing as well? Brian Leen: So mercury regulation is not going to stop in the United States and Canada. There has already been an international treaty that is referred to as the Minamata Treaty that has many different participant countries who have committed to reducing fugitive mercury emissions. So there are already waste-to-energy facilities that exist in both Europe and China that use products that we make or products like what we make. John Shegerian: Right. Brian Leen: And we anticipate that there is going to be continued regulation for coal-fired power in other markets where coal-fired power is growing. John Shegerian: OK. Brian Leen: China, for example, is a market where coal-fired power is growing very, very quickly. We believe that there will come a time when they focus more on mercury emissions and where that opportunity for serving those power plants will develop. John Shegerian: Go back to what you were saying, though. I’m fascinated by the terminology of “fugitive mercury.” So you’re saying it’s been outlawed here? In Canada and the United States? Brian Leen: It’s been regulated. John Shegerian: Regulated out. Sorry. Great point. Are the regulations on mercury as tough around the world or are they looser regulations on mercury? Brian Leen: So the federal regulation that governs mercury control here in the United States is – to my knowledge – the tightest, most stringent regulation anywhere in the world. John Shegerian: Wow. Brian Leen: So really, in this case, the United States is leading the way. So our anticipation is that over time with the example that is set here in the United States other countries will follow. John Shegerian: What are the other benefits of your business? How big has it gotten in terms of job creation and other environmental benefits and community benefits that a great company like yours brings? Brian Leen: Well, I think one of the things that we’re most proud of – frankly – are the jobs that we’ve created as a result of the growth of our company. We’ve brought about 80 high-paying, high-quality jobs to a very poor parish in Louisiana called Red River Parish. It’s where our facility is based. We’ve actually had Governor Bobby Jindal come to our plant twice to celebrate kind of the job creation in that part of the community. We also have a headquarter location in Littleton, Colorado where we have developed all of our R&D and our back office support. So there are about 30 people that are employed there. So we are really proud of kind of the growth that we’ve seen. I’ll tell you that it’s a fun place to come to work. It’s easy to get excited about the fact that every day that you come to work you’re making the environment a cleaner and safer and healthier place. John Shegerian: For our audience members that just joined us, we have Brian Leen with us. He is the President and CEO of ADA Carbon Solutions. To learn more about ADA Carbon Solutions, go to www.ada-cs.com. Brian, you’re here today – and this is the Houlihan Lokey special edition of Green Is Good, and we’re here in New York City at the Marriott Marquis. Why are you excited to come here to be an evangelist for your company and for your technology? How do you get so much done today, and why is it important to come to a conference like that so you can further spread the good word of what you’re doing? Brian Leen: Houlihan Lokey has a great – I think – global reach to a variety of different – both strategic companies as well as financial – companies that represent potential investors into our business. Environmental regulation is going to continue to impact coal-fired power. We see tremendous opportunity for ongoing investment and growth bringing new technologies to bear to allow and help coal-fired power continue to be an important part of our energy platform. So what’s so great about this opportunity is getting to meet other potential investors in our business who share the kind of vision for growth, that share the vision for what we think our company can be. John Shegerian: Got you. And so you are presenting here today? Brian Leen: I am. John Shegerian: Got you. And so how much of your life do you spend on the road being an ambassador and evangelist for all the great work you’re accomplishing at ADA? Brian Leen: Well, quite a bit. John Shegerian: Yeah. Brian Leen: Mostly with prospective customers because we are looking at trying to help understand their problems and design solutions that will meet those challenges. But I spend quite a bit of time out there with those people. John Shegerian: That’s awesome. Well, that’s great and we thank you for your time today. And, again, for our listeners out there and our viewers, it’s ADA Carbon Solutions. To learn more about ADA or to contact Brian, go to www.ada-cs.com. You know, Brian, you’re an inspiring entrepreneur and you make the world a better place every day, and for that, you are truly living proof that Green Is Good. Thank you for joining us today. Brian Leen: Thank you. John Shegerian: Thank you very much. We really appreciate it. Brian Leen: Take care.