A Conversation with Antonio Ng: Carbon Sequestering Cement
By Antonio Ng 20 September, 2022
Concrete = 11% of global emissions. Frustrated about not moving the needle on emissions, Ng, former architect & now FORMWORK IO CEO, walks us through his carbon sequestering cement start-up
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Formwork IO’s vision of ‘Urban Carbon Removal’ is based on a new set of carbon removal technologies specifically developed for the built environment. The ambition is to transform our urban landscape into dynamic, carbon sequestering environments through the application of Formwork IO’s innovative building elements that absorb and store carbon dioxide. With the continued rise of urbanization, these environments can potentially sequester significant portions of global carbon emissions.
CWR: Thanks for agreeing to chat with us, Antonio. We’re very excited to hear about your carbon removal tech startup in Hong Kong! Can you share why you set it up and your vision?
Antonio Ng (AN): Thank you for the opportunity to share. For 20 years, I was working as a design architect specialized in sustainable building and masterplans across North America, Europe and Asia.
I was convinced that I was part of the solution on Climate Change. But when I realized we weren’t doing enough to move the needle in reducing the building & construction sector’s 40% global carbon emissions, I decided to chart a different course by starting FORMWORK IO. Looking back, I believe this was born out of frustration that I couldn’t do more as an architect to make a significant enough impact! With the continued rise in global urbanization, there will be huge amounts of concrete and steel going into cities.
FORMWORK IO was born out of my frustration…
…our objective is to develop a new generation of sustainable building materials that turn buildings & cities into giant carbon sinks
As a coastal city, Hong Kong will have even more of these high-impact materials along the coastline for climate adaptation purposes. In response, I had this vision of upcycling greenhouse gas that would have otherwise made its way into the atmosphere and storing it in buildings, coastlines and cities permanently. I call this concept “Urban Carbon Removal”. To store GHGs in our cities, we have to redesign the fundamental “buildings blocks” which are the building materials.
Then it became clear that the objective is to develop a new generation of sustainable building materials with carbon sequestering capability. When applied in mass quantities, this could transform new and existing buildings even cities into giant carbon sinks. This way, the more we build or renovate, the more we remove and sequester greenhouse gas! Since mid 2021, Nano Advanced Material Institute (NAMI) became our strategic development partner. We’re also working with experts at Hong Kong Polytechnic University as a strategic partner on lifecycle design and analysis.
CWR: Cement is carbon intensive, so how does FORMWORK IO’s technology aim to overcome this? Does your product emit less carbon or does it sequester carbon, or even better does it do both?
AN: Due to its extraction and manufacturing process, it’s very carbon intensive. Cement is an indispensable ingredient in concrete. Concrete is considered a high-impact material (along with steel and aluminum) that is responsible for 11% of total global emissions.
The entire process involves a new, unique carbon reactive cement, carbon upcycling & innovative carbon curing process
Most of this is used in the built environment. With this in mind, paired with decades of experience in sustainable building and construction, I’ve made considerable effort to develop our products based on a new set of carbon removal technology that achieves both.
Our proprietary technology acts as catalyst to drive down embodied carbon while ramping up carbon absorption based on a phenomenon known as permanent mineral sequestration. This allows us to mineralize and permanently lock away carbon dioxide during production. The entire process involves a new, unique carbon reactive cement, carbon upcycling and innovative carbon curing process.
CWR: Cement startups are rapidly emerging and becoming a competitive market across Asia. How do you make sure your product stands out?
AN: Given my extensive background in sustainable architecture and construction across different geographies, I know firsthand the frustration that comes with trying to design and deliver a true net zero project yet knowing that it is technically impossible without addressing the embodied carbon in materials. This is where we come in, providing the designers, architects and engineers a new generation of sustainable building materials on a pathway to achieve this.
We provide sustainable building materials to help achieve net zero projects…
…plus, embodied carbon is regional specific & most of our competitors are from North America or Europe
Carbon emissions, particularly embodied carbon, is regional specific. Materials or products that have a small carbon footprint in one region often do not translate globally. Most if not all of our competitors are from North America or Europe. Their product/technology has been developed with different raw materials and has a small carbon footprint in their respective regions because of the proximity of raw material sourcing and transportation. Our product/technology has been developed with supply chain in mind to ensure the lifecycle carbon of our products are minimized when produced and applied in Asia.
Beside being carbon obsessed, I’m keen to bring design and aesthetics to everything that we do. We’re working towards infusing a design forward aesthetic to our product design. I’d like to change the perception that green building products are dull and boring. Lastly, unlike most of our competitors, we are committed to deliver a whole generation of new products instead of just licensing technology because there’s a lot more potential for optimization in terms of carbon removal if we develop to the product level.
CWR: Why did you setup in HK? Is it because you foresee opportunities in HK’s property development sector?
AN: Since I’ve been based in Hong Kong the past few years, it made sense to setup here. I see both Hong Kong and Singapore as ideal testbeds for pilot projects and launch pads to reach the Greater Bay Area and Southeast Asia markets. Hong Kong has a good startup ecosystem, and a growing interest and demand in Proptech.
HK & SG are ideal testbeds for Proptech & to reach the GBA
ESG in commercial real estate is getting more attention and I see this as a positive sign for us being at the intersection of Climatetech and Proptech. Besides finance, Hong Kong is very much driven by real estate. I believe this demand in Proptech will accelerate as big scale Greater Bay integration projects such as the Northern Metropolis start to take shape.
CWR: Without a doubt there seems to be an opportunity in the new Northern Metropolis development. Could you give us a ballpark on how much carbon FORMWORK IO could save there?
AN: Based on our current estimates, we believe just applying our initial paving block product alone at the Northern Metropolis could save up to 3.8 million tonnes of CO2 e which is approximately 10% of HK’s annual carbon footprint. And this is based on only ONE single product.
Using our paving block, the Northern Metropolis could save 3.8mt of CO2e = 10% of HK’s annual carbon footprint
If we execute on our product roadmap the next couple of years, this could lead to an ecosystem of building materials and products with carbon removal capabilities that could deliver exponentially more savings in carbon emissions at Northern Metropolis alone.
CWR: Given the growing global hype around carbon removal, why haven’t we seen much upscale of carbon removal tech in HK?
AN: Unlike Fintech, Climatetech and specifically carbon removal tech has not received much attention or been prioritized by either public or private sector in Hong Kong. It has been challenging to introduce climate resilient tech here partly because people see risks instead of opportunities in climate change.
People in HK see risks instead of opportunities in climate change
Many do not realize or believe the urgency we face, thinking we still have decades left to deal with these issues. Investors are often looking at investments with shorter horizon and less risks. However, with a growing interest in proptech and ESG in real estate, I hope this will translate to Climatetech in the real estate and construction sectors. Many will see that the opportunities here outweighs the risks.
CWR: What stage is FORMWORK IO at? And what challenges have you faced throughout your entrepreneurial journey? Have HK policies helped or hindered your journey?
AN: We are still at the early seed stage in the midst of research and development. We aim to deliver our 2nd prototype and possibly fastback pilot projects starting later this year. As someone who is from Hong Kong but did not graduate from one of the universities here, it has been challenging as most of the publicly available startup support are tied to the local universities and their alumni networks. Majority of the accelerators do not provide financial support.
Getting support, especially financial support has been a challenge…
…more needs to be done to make HK a leader in climatetech
The ones that do are focused on more mature startups with sales and traction already. Most, if not all, research and innovation funds/grants still request for existing clients or job references. This is absolutely contradictory! While there is generally good support at the local universities, I believe more can be done to foster a more vibrant ecosystem of startups and entrepreneurs focusing on specific domains such as climate. Hong Kong has a huge opportunity to become global leader in climate change by nurturing the climatetech community and support the upscaling of carbon removal tech.
CWR: To wrap, if you have one wish to the HK government, investors, and engineers, what would it be?
AN: Full throttle approach to climate mitigation and adaptation in turning risks into opportunities! I wish we are all aligned in forging ahead with a pioneering spirit while seeing and seizing the opportunities that comes along with climate change.
In a culture where innovation is seen as risk, it is more critical than ever that we pilot new approaches (ones without job references!). It is no longer an option to maintain status quo with markets rapid fluctuations, technology moving goalposts and climate uncertainties. After all, there is also the risk of doing nothing, or doing too little too late!
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