“Rivalia is pioneering a new chemical extraction technology that harvests rare earth elements from coal ash, a product of burning coal for power and then recycles the residual solid for use in low carbon concrete.”
Creating Change through Tough Tech: The Rivalia Journey
“Coal ash provides two complementary angles for solving emissions. The first is supply chain resiliency for rare earth metals. To meet our incredibly bold climate goals to reduce our emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2050, we need rare earth elements like neodymium and scandium for a ton of different high tech applications, including consumer electronics, wind turbines, electric vehicles, defense tech, and medical treatments. We don’t produce enough rare earths domestically to meet our demand, and scaling up new mining operations requires extensive permitting, which takes a long time. By looking at waste like coal ash, acid mine drainage, and the sludges from produced waters, we can diversify and strengthen our supply chain. The second part is taking the residual from our process and putting it in low carbon concrete. Coal ash is a replacement for Portland cement, one of the biggest greenhouse gas contributors, so to the extent we can take the residual and put it in concrete, we can reduce the need to produce more cement.
Extracting rare earths from coal ash is not a new idea; it's something the US has been pursuing for a few decades. Conventional methods are really chemical intensive, so they produce even more waste. The Rivalia method is the first shot at a green way of actually pulling rare earths out of ash. Our main chemical is recyclable so we can use it over multiple cycles of coal ash.
I was really excited about the technology, and I was getting interest from VCs. I realized this is something I would be happy to dedicate the next 5-10 years of my life to: building something with this kind of impact is worth my time and attention and energy.”
Blueprint: A Catalyst for Tough Tech Startups
“The two big things that were really great about Blueprint were the way the program talks about risks and categorizing those risks – science risks, engineering risks, scaling risks, and regulatory/market risks. As a Tough Tech startup, these look a little different, and you should talk about them differently with your customers and to VCs. Blueprint really validated the challenges in building a Tough Tech startup and gave me the vocabulary to talk about it.
The other thing I really liked was the focus on government & policy, specifically starting those relationships early. For me, harvesting rare earths from coal ash and transforming the residual for concrete is something that could garner interest from the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Navigating different regulatory agencies is going to be a big part of building and positioning this company. Having that section in the lessons pushed me to start prioritizing this.”
Advocating for Scientists as Entrepreneurs
“From a personal standpoint, building a startup is hard, and being a part of communities is really important. I’m currently doing CleanTech Open Northeast and previously participated in TechStars. In playing the long game, stamina and perseverance are crucial. My personal superpower is just to keep going – setting those milestones and completing them.
A driving force of Blueprint is that scientists make good entrepreneurs, and I definitely think that's true. I would love to see more scientists, more PhD students take that step and do it. And sometimes that's something that needs to be really intentional from the outset, but not necessarily. There's a lot of valuable skills PhDs have that they don't realize.”