Mike Mattes is the CEO of CORMETECH. In his own words, Mike details his recipe for innovation: Each step forward serves as a building block to construct an even bigger advancement. CORMETECH’s development of breakthrough technologies are addressing the alarming levels of airborne carbon dioxide and climate-crisis concerns.
What was the catalyst that got you into a career in emissions-control?
My father worked for Ford Motors all his life as a forklift operator, and I came up in a working-class family. I also always enjoyed the outdoors and fishing, so I had a respect for the environment from a young age. It was a different era. Even in the early 1960s, you could smell pollution in the air, and people would jokingly say, “It smells like money to me,” because it meant the factories were humming and there were lots of jobs at those factories. But by the late 1960s, it got so bad that attitudes started changing. Since then, we’ve made great progress reducing air-pollution particulates and smog, and the water is much cleaner. The one thing we really haven’t addressed is carbon dioxide emissions. In the 1970s, people didn’t see carbon dioxide and the risk of climate change on par with things they could see and smell like smog and dirty rivers and lakes.
What do you want people to know about CORMETECH and its 30-year plus heritage of making the air cleaner?
Our catalysts are the engines of selective catalytic reduction emissions control systems ─ SCRs ─ commonly in use at power-generation and petrochemical plants. U.S. implementation of the technology, and CORMETECH’s founding dates to the late 1980s. This original company was a joint venture of Corning and Mitsubishi. Corning had technology they developed for automotive catalytic converters. They had an extruded honeycomb-shaped technology with a low pressure drop, which meant you could get a lot of gas through the catalyst to effectively remove NOx (nitrogen oxides). Mitsubishi brought the chemistry and technical know-how around NOx in flue gas, as well as heavy-industry project-development capabilities. An SCR catalyst converts NOx, which is harmful to people and the planet, to harmless nitrogen and water. The first widespread use of SCRs occurred in Japan, followed by Europe. SCRs then became a standard in the U.S. following passage of The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. Since 1995, power plant NOx emissions in the U.S. have fallen by almost 90 percent.
CORMETECH is the U.S. SCR catalyst market leader, and we’re proud we’ve played a very big role in helping make the air cleaner.
What was the genesis of CORMETECH’s circular-operating platform?
The start-up company I joined in the early 2000s figured out how to regenerate many SCR catalysts back to their original quality so they could be reused 2-4 times rather than be landfilled the first time they became saturated with pollutants. We soon merged with the only other company doing something similar. Then when Corning and Mitsubishi decided to sell CORMETECH in 2017, I championed the acquisition. I thought that to make economies of scale work for a circular model, you would need to have manufacturing, regeneration and recycling all under one roof, and the combined CORMETECH is the only company that has done this.
It’s a winning formula. Our customers pay about half the cost for a regeneration cycle that they’d pay for brand-new catalysts. Even when catalysts can’t be regenerated, we take them back and recycle them. This decreases the environmental footprint by the ton because the catalysts never go to a landfill. Recycling lowers the amount of raw material we need to source for manufacturing new catalysts. It reduces costs and protects the environment, and this adds up to a truly sustainable business model.
How does CORMETECH’s catalyst expertise translate to carbon capture?
After we formed the new CORMETECH, I found myself working with three brilliant people from the legacy-manufacturing business ─Chris DiFrancesco, Scott Daugherty, and Scot Pritchard. They continue to be key members of our senior leadership team to this day. We asked ourselves where the opportunities were to grow and what areas of pollution control could we make an impact on beyond NOx control.
We saw a path to continue to innovate to make natural gas-fired power cleaner and that hydrogen power was going to grow. Hydrogen-power generation eliminates CO2, though it’s more NOx-intensive than natural gas. We refined our catalyst solutions, including introducing a modular-based system – ELITE – that has an extremely low pressure drop and is long-lasting – in some cases the catalysts can last more than a decade before they need to be replaced and recycled.
We also began to see an interest in solid-adsorber alternatives to liquid-amine carbon-capture systems because while liquid-based systems are useful for enhanced-oil recovery, they’re also very costly and often take up more land than the actual power plants. That’s particularly a problem when the land adjacent to a power or petrochemical plant doesn’t even exist.
About the same time – around 2018 – we began to see start-up companies focusing on direct-air capture. We figured they’d need core technology to power their systems, and that the adsorbers they’d need could have a lot in common with our catalysts.
What is CORMETECH’s north star?
In February 2022, we set an all-in course to position CORMETECH as THE emission-control company that would be at the core of decarbonizing power and energy generation, along with providing essential technology for the emerging direct air capture field.
What drives you?
I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t want clean air for themselves, their kids, and their grandkids. I’ve been a part of solving an air-pollution challenge around NOx that three decades ago people said couldn’t be solved, at least without dramatically scaling back access to affordable and reliable power.
With SCR catalysts to control NOx and additional power sources like solar and wind, we dealt with NOx and grew power supply at the same time. I passionately believe we can and must do the same thing with carbon dioxide. It’s a bigger challenge. CO2 is far more abundant than NOx, and because it’s not visible the way smog from NOx is, it’s a problem we ignored far too long.
I’m at a point in my life where the air pollution that scared me growing up isn’t the same threat to my grandkids. But carbon dioxide could be a threat to them, and I’m determined to do everything I can to leave behind a better world for my grandkids.