21 January 2022 |

Keep Cool Deep Dive #0007: Glanris


Who do we have the pleasure of covering today? Glanris, a water filtration company and a biocarbon producer. Today we’ll explore how Glanris tackles twin climate challenges: global water shortages and the need to develop gigaton-level carbon removal solutions.

Here’s a quick forecast of where we’re headed: 

  • It starts with a grain of rice 🌾
  • Tackling twin climate challenges 💪
  • Diving deeper: Water filtration 101 💦
  • Supercharging emissions reductions 📈
  • The challenges ⚠️
  • Turning the corner: 2022 and beyond 📅

One more thing! Our exploration of Glanris’ business will discuss biochar and pyrolysis. Looking for a quick primer on biochar? Look no further than our report! 🤝

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It starts with a grain of rice 🌾

Glanris is headquartered in Memphis, in the heart of the “rice belt” of the U.S. More than half of all rice produced domestically is grown in this region that spans Southern Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, East Texas and parts of Mississippi.

Bryan Eagle, CEO of Glanris, founded Glanris with a focus on water filtration. The company develops and commercializes water filtration media that leverage the unique properties of biocarbons produced by pyrolyzing rice hulls as their main filtration mechanism. 

What does “pyrolyzing” refer to? 🤔

Pyrolysis is a specific process for heating biomass (like wood chips or rice hulls) in the absence of oxygen.  This turns plant material into ‘stable carbon’. The resulting material, often called biochar, holds carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Biochar can sequester up to ~3x its own weight in carbon dioxide. As such, it’s a material that doesn’t just have attractive properties for things like water filtration. It’s a solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (“GHGs”) and reversing climate change, too 🔄.  

Many different types of biomass can be pyrolyzed and turned into biochar. So why does Glanris use rice hulls? Here’s the context Bryan provided us with:

[Rice hulls] are very high in silica; when you pyrolize them, you end up with half biocarbon and half silica. We build on the silica to create some unique chemistry that allows you to remove dissolved metals in addition to organic material.

This dual filtration functionality is novel. Dominant market solutions, like activated carbons, only filter only organic materials.  To remove dissolved metals, ion exchange resin beads, a petroleum based micro plastic are used.  Glanris can remove both metals and organics. The chemical properties of the rice hull-based biocarbons Glanris uses are so unique that Bryan actually trademarked the term “biocarbon,” using it instead of the typical “biochar.” Since biochars are predominantly composed of carbon (~90%), the material Glanris produces warrants differentiation ☝️. 

“We needed a different name, because we’re building a different solution,” noted Bryan. 

Beyond advantageous chemical composition, there’s also plenty of rice hull supply. And importantly for Glanris’ mission, this supply is concentrated. Glanris gets all the rice hulls they need from one mill in Arkansas that generates 2B pounds of biomass annually. They don’t need to drive to hundreds of different locations and run an expensive, emissions-heavy logistics operation to source the biomass needed to produce their biocarbons.

Next up? Let’s dive deeper into Glanris’ business and the power of combining water filtration and biocarbon production 👇.

Tackling twin climate challenges 💪

Why were we so excited to talk to Bryan about his business? Because it has the potential to solve twin climate challenges. The first? Communities across the globe are running out of water 💦. Here are some hard hitting stats Bryan shared with us:

“Less than 1% of the water on the earth is actually potable. McKinsey predicts that demand for water will exceed sustainable supply by 40% as early as 2030 (source here). By 2050, demand for water will exceed sustainable supplies by 120%. They estimate there will be over 3.5B people water starved. We’ve already seen this start to happen in major global cities like Cape Town…  

Already, international deals are being brokered to secure more water. Jordan and Israel recently inked a partnership in which Israel trades solar power from Jordan for desalinated water from Israel  🤝. 

How else can companies and communities alike start to tackle this problem? Reusing more water would be a good place to start. This is where water filtration comes in. Bryan laid out some of the math for us:

“70% of the water pumped out of the ground today in the U.S. is used for agriculture. 22% is used for industry. About 8% is used for households… If you could get half of industry to reuse water, that’d save more water than all households use today.” (one source here)

In parallel, there’s a second climate challenge Glanris can help address. Every year, 50 gigatons (i.e. 50 billion metric tons) of GHGs are emitted into the earth’s atmosphere, accelerating global warming. To reverse climate change, we need gigaton level solutions that prevent emissions and / or remove them from the atmosphere ⬇️.

Good news. Biochar and biocarbons can help reduce and remove emissions. How? Bryan explained this well in the context of rice hulls as the input biomass for the pyrolysis process: 

“Rice hulls are typically burned or hauled off to landfills. Either way, this creates greenhouse gases. If they’re burned, it produces CO2. If they’re left to rot in landfills, they produce methane as they decompose. If we can stop that by using rice hulls for pyrolysis to produce biocarbons, we can address the climate crisis and water crisis simultaneously.”

Diving deeper: Water filtration 101 💦

We learned a massive amount about the water filtration industry from Bryan. Let’s walk through some basics of water filtration. Here’s how Bryan elucidated water filtration 101 for us 👨‍🏫:

“Every water filtration system does two basic things: it filters out impurities and disinfects. Activated carbon removes organic pollutants… When you get to removing metals, there are two technologies. One technology that’s used a lot is ion exchange resins. These work via ionic  attraction; they pull metals out of a solution and adhere them to a material. The other way to filter metals is through reverse osmosis or microfiltration. This works, but it isn’t the most efficient process; its very energy intensive and has about a 50% rejection rate.”

These technologies work. So well in fact that Bryan noted there hasn’t been a major innovation in that space in nearly five decades. Still, there are opportunities for improvement. Particularly from a climate tech perspective. Ion exchange resin is a petroleum based microplastic. “Very efficient. Not very green,” noted Bryan. 🙅

In parallel, Glanris’ technology is cost-effective without skimping on efficacy:

“We’re about the same cost as activated carbon. For metals removal, we’re a lot less expensive. We’re also a drop-in replacement, you take out whatever you’re using in your filtration tank and put our stuff in instead.”   

So why haven’t technologies like Glanris’ taken off yet, especially considering they’re much more green? 🤔

Because existing technologies work, there’s resistance to change. Bryan laid out an insightful profile of the typical decision maker in the water filtration industry:

“…over 80% of the managers and senior level employees in the water industry, both industrial and municipal, are within 3 years of retirement. If it ain’t broke, they’re not fixing it.” 

Water filtration is also a critically important process. The costs of implementing a new solution that doesn’t work aren’t confined to sunk costs. People’s health and lives are at stake. 

Considering the stakes as well as particularly fraught case studies from the past decade (e.g. Flint, Michigan), Bryan understands that especially for municipalities, it will take time before there’s demand for new technology, even if it’s greener.

Glanris has seen more takers in the industrial market so far, where cost alone is a primary decision driver. What do Glanris’ industrial clients look like? There are two primary types of clients Glanris is starting to serve: environmental remediation projects and industrial sites. 

Environmental remediation sites involve cleaning something up. It could be a construction site. As Bryan laid out: “You can’t just pump it out and divert it into a stream; you have to make sure you didn’t contaminate it with whatever materials you’re using at that site.”

Meanwhile, Bryan described industrial sites as follows:

“On the industrial side, anyone that paints, plates, or uses metal in their manufacturing process and has water involved in cleaning, is going to end up with metal contaminants in their wastewater. They have to remove that before they can discharge the water or reuse it. We want them to think about reusing that water and our solutions offer a lower-cost, efficient way to filter.”  

How does Glanris win over new clients in these spaces? By conducting pilot programs. Almost all of Glanris’ clients use lead filters, lag filters, and back-up filters. If one filtration system fails, there are two more safeguards. Glanris’ pilots start in the lead filter position; if the system works in the lead position, Glanris can move to the lag and the back-up position. Then they expand to other facilities, all of which can have multiple filtration systems, and win more business.

Industrial companies and operations often also use a combination of multiple tanks with combinations of ion exchange resin and activated carbons to tackle organic and metal contaminants. That’s another benefit of Glanris’ product; they can filter all types of contaminants, replacing both types of filtration systems. 

Another tailwind for Glanris in the industrial market is that these businesses, especially larger ones, increasingly employ a Chief Sustainability Officer:

“Industrial sites are more willing to try our systems particularly because it’s less expensive. We have them at ‘it’s cheaper.’ Then, when we get Chief Sustainability Officers involved too, it can be a beautiful thing…” 

Supercharging emissions reductions 📈

The latest UN IPCC report identified production and use of biochar as a key tool for addressing climate change. Specifically, they see it as a potential ~2 gigaton per year solution. Importantly, this market sizing exercise only took into account the use of biochar in soil amendments 🌱. 

Biochar and biocarbons can be great for soil. They can enhance soil quality, enrich soil nutrients and promote greater water retention. Lots of stellar companies like Willow (more on them soon 👀) create soil amendments with biochar that anyone can use to improve their soil quality 👨‍🌾.

Soil amendments aside, if we expand our perspective on the potential use cases of biocarbons to markets like water filtration, the potential for impact grows significantly. The activated carbon market is about an $8B market. Bryan advised us to assume costs of ~$1 per pound, meaning there’s ~8B pounds of activated carbon sold annually for water filtration.

If even a small portion of this activated market were converted to biocarbon based water filtration use cases, that could yield another gigaton level solution, stimulating significant amounts of biocarbon production 📈. Bryan believes the economics for biocarbon producers could be stronger selling into water filtration systems than soil amendments, too:

“If you look at the soil amendment market, estimates are that farmers will buy biocarbons at $80-$100 per cubic meter. We sell a cubic meter for $1,200+ in the water filtration market.”

Water filtration isn’t where the buck stops for biocarbons either. There are additional potential applications Bryan alluded to, including in cement and asphalt production. Construction and asphalt / cement production alone contribute 5-10% of global GHGs annually 🧱. These markets could unlock even more gigatons of biochar production and climate impact.

The Challenges ⚠️

In addition to breaking into the municipal market (🤞), the next challenge for Glanris is scaling their business. Capital will be integral to ramping up the requisite sales and marketing effort, and to expand biocarbon generation and the production of their filtration media. 

We were surprised (and impressed!) to learn that Glanris already serves customers globally. Clients use their systems in India, France, South Africa, Canada, the Philippines, as well as one partner about to test their product in Vietnam 🌏.

To really be a climate positive business, Glanris can’t produce all of its biocarbon in Tennessee and ship it globally on emissions-intensive cargo ships 🚢. Bryan admitted selling globally is…

“…a little scary. We can’t make the product and ship it internationally and still call it green. We want to manufacture everywhere we sell; we have to make it locally. This supports local farmers and local markets, but this means we have to scale our business quickly and raise more money. We need to find the right VCs who want to shake shit up and change the world.”   

As Bryan alluded to in the above, there’s even more impact in local production beyond emission reductions, too. We learned this covering other awesome biochar businesses, like Mandulis Energy in Uganda in the past. Bryan readily agreed with our vision for how this can work:

“That’s the whole point. Let’s provide climate jobs locally. In India, rice hulls are burned in the field, which is bad for the environment. If you’ve ever been to New Delhi in September, you’ll know what I’m talking about. That smog comes from burning rice hulls. If you’re looking for a soil amendment, pyrolyze the rice hulls first. Then you can use it for soil amendment and to clean up your water.”

Further challenges for Glanris reside on the emissions reduction front. Any project or company that has carbon sequestration as one of its aims has to ensure that carbon it captures is sequestered permanently, or at least that they know for exactly how long they can reliably have claimed to sequester it. As an example, reforestation projects (planting trees) are great 🌳. But if those same trees are logged, burn down, or get infested with bark beetles, even if it’s 50-100 years later, the predicted impact probably hasn’t been fully realized 📉.

Glanris’ products are a reliable, permanent carbon sink. Once carbon dioxide is pyrolyzed into the biocarbons used in their filtration media, it isn’t going anywhere. We asked Bryan to walk us through what they recommend customers do once the product has exhausted its useful life:

“…we want our customers to send (our products) to a landfill (once spent). In the landfill, two things happen. It will continue to adsorb other contaminants, and you’re sequestering carbon in the ground. We don’t want to accelerate landfilling, but it’s a good way to sequester carbon.” 

This was a bit surprising to us. The carbon sequestration piece may be sound, but ‘accelerating landfilling’ is a concern of its own, as Bryan readily acknowledged. He also noted the company is focused on finding alternatives:

“We’re looking at alternative uses for it. Perhaps these can be used for soil amendments, in which case we can give it away to farmers. We’ve gotten our revenue, what we care about is getting it into the ground as quickly as possible so we can sequester carbon. The cement and asphalt markets may also represent great markets for spent media.”

We’re eager to see Glanris make progress on this front; if they can find ways to integrate their biocarbons in soil amendments (or to recycle and reuse them in more filtration media), then their product can become a truly ‘circular economy’ solution 💥.  

These processes that promote accountable, permanent carbon sequestration will also be critical to unlocking carbon offset sales as an additional revenue source in the future. At current, Glanris is working with Puro, a carbon market in Germany, on this front:

“We’re in the middle of doing our Lifecycle Assessment right now… We hope to have that finalized by the end of the year. There’s a never ending series of questions and verification. Which is good; they’re asking all the right questions to distill the real impact.”

With no shortages of challenges, what’s critical is that Glanris turn them into opportunities, as many of the best businesses do. Whether it’s scaling by integrating local supply chains and farmers into their business, establishing a fully circular product life cycle, or navigating carbon markets, we can appreciate that Glanris is hard at work on all fronts. 

Turning the corner: 2022 and beyond 📅

Even beyond the success the business enjoyed this year expanding the customers’ base, Bryan noted positive tailwinds he sees for the climate tech space in general:

“COP 26 has gotten a lot of people thinking, ‘We better get our shit together! What kind of planet do you want to leave for your grandkids?’” 

Public sector catalysts could also help buoy demand for Glanris’ products. In Europe, microplastics like ion exchange resin are subject to increased scrutiny. We may see municipalities turning to solutions like Glanris’ sooner than market dynamics alone would suggest, especially if regulation is the driving factor. 

In an ideal world, top-down legislation and public sector funding could lead the charge and supercharge climate tech solutions that reverse climate change. Practically, folks like Bryan know that solutions have to make good business sense to achieve maximum impact too 💡: 

“[Our product] is cheaper than what’s on the market today and it’s a drop in replacement for the technologies already in use. Now you have an economic incentive without any behavioral changes required – no switching costs. *That’s* how we can address climate change.” 

In sum? On top of the heightened attention and investment that the climate tech space has enjoyed this year, if you can create solutions like Glanris’ that are multi-solve and easy for potential customers to say “yes” to, that makes for a strong business foundation 💪.

And it’s also a good recipe for impact. At scale, we’re excited to see Glanris:

  • Provide local jobs and income to rice farmers worldwide who provide input biomass for the pyrolyzation process 🔜?
  • Reduce carbon dioxide emissions and sequester carbon in their biocarbons ✔️
  • Produce systems that unlock cost-effective ways to reuse water ✔️
  • Convert spent product into soil amendments or other useful materials, creating the final link in a ‘circular’ solution 🔜? 

We’re excited to follow along as they pursue these goals and turn question marks into check marks. Many thanks to Bryan for taking the time to sit down with us (and for being an awesome Keep Cool reader!)