Immaterial Labs Ltd

Immaterial Labs Ltd: Monolithic metal organic frameworks for supreme gas storage and separation.

Cambridge, United Kingdom
Year Founded:
Organization type: 
for profit
Project Stage:
$100,000 - $250,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

We have developed a porous material that can be put inside a gas tank to enable it to store up to 16 times as much gas at the same pressure and in the same volume. Our technology is a key enabler for the adoption of Natural Gas Vehicles, which emit 40% less carbon dioxide than petrol vehicles.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

What if the world started using Natural Gas Vehicles rather than petrol, and reduced carbon dioxide emissions from transport by 40%?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Despite being a cleaner and cheaper mode of transport compared to petrol vehicles, NGVs only account for 1% of the global vehicle population due to a “compression obstacle”. The need for high pressures causes two problems: 1) the cost of installing a natural gas refuelling station is 15x greater than an equivalent gasoline station, and 2) tanks need to be bulky with thick walls, making their incorporation into smaller vehicles difficult.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

A tank filled with our material (which we call ‘monolithic ZIF-8 MOF’) can store the same amount of fuel as a standard 250 bar gas tank, but operating at 30 bar instead. In doing so, we significantly reduce the cost of developing refuelling infrastructure (even making it possible to refuel from your home mains gas supply), and make smaller and lighter tanks viable. We have a key enabling technology to overcome one of the major obstacles to NGV adoption.


Cambridge University Entrepreneurs 2015 £1,000 winners; EPSRC Follow-on Fund 2015 winners; Royal Society of Chemistry Emerging Technologies Competition 2015 winners; Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowship 2015 winners
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Natural gas contains less carbon per unit of energy than any other fossil fuel, producing lower carbon dioxide emissions per vehicle mile travelled. On average, NGVs emit 270 g(CO2)/mile compared to 450 g(CO2)/mile for conventional gasoline vehicles, or about 40% less greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, in many countries it is cheaper than petroleum. A report by the IEA estimates that transportation accounted for 23% of global CO2 emissions in 2012, and 95% of the world’s transportation energy comes from gasoline and diesel. There are 18 million NGVs worldwide, forecasted to reach 35 million by 2020. Any technology that accelerates the adoption of NGVs can significantly reduce carbon emissions around the globe.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Our technology was discovered in 2014 in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Cambridge. In June 2014, Cambridge Enterprise filed patent applications on our behalf. In June 2015, these were combined into a PCT application. Immaterial Labs Ltd was incorporated in October 2015 to exploit the IP we have developed. We have supplied four early partners with 100g samples to test in high value but low volume markets, and in doing so we have already reduced the cost of production from £29,000/kg to £2,000/kg. Addressing smaller markets is a necessary stepping-stone before we are able to manufacture enough material to address the NGV market. Eventually we believe we will be able to manufacture 1kg for under £15. Our company is a member of Accelerate Cambridge, and the Department of Chemical Engineering is supporting us by letting us start out embedded in their labs.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

Our material has been developed to store CO2 and methane, which is why it is good for NGVs and CO2 capture. But MOFs are a general class of material that can be tailored to be optimal for storing different gases. Our business model involves the design and licensing of IP rather than the manufacturing of material. By leveraging the existing manufacturing infrastructure of the likes of BASF, we will reach volume-production more rapidly. We aim to license IP to a network of partners who will utilise Immaterial IP designs to manufacture monolithic MOFs tailored for specific applications.

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

We have secured £156,000 in funding to begin working with early partners in high-value but low-volume applications for carbon scrubbing, which will provide initial revenue. We are now looking to raise £300,000 to fund development by scaling up to 100kg (beginning in June 2016). At the end of this key stage of development, we will be in a position to make our first commercial sales in our early markets, whilst developing prototype NGV tanks.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

The utility of MOFs is limited by difficulties in processing the powders resulting from their synthesis. Powders cannot be used directly, and they must be pelletized. Using MOFs in gas tanks for NGVs is not a new idea. BASF tried, but they faced two difficulties: 1) their pelletized MOFs crumbled due to vibrations; 2) their MOFs were affected by moisture. Our monolithic ZIF-8 MOF addresses both issues by being stable in water, and mechanically robust to vibrations. In addition, our material has 4× the storage capacity of the powdered ZIF-8 MOF that our competitors can currently make.

Founding Story

Tian Tian accidentally discovered a new way of pelletizing MOF materials because the machine he needed was not available, so he reluctantly deviated from the standard synthesis. The material he developed looked unusual, but after a few tests the potential became apparent. He had solved a major problem facing the MOF field – that is, how do we pelletize the powders we can already make without affecting performance? But he went much further, because his method actually enhances performance four-fold. We built a team around the invention, got it internationally patented, and this is what has brought us here.


The Board of Directors includes the two inventors of our technologies. Dr David Fairen-Jimenez (CSO, Inventor) is the Head of the Adsorption & Advanced Materials Lab at the University of Cambridge and has world-renowned expertise in porous materials. Tian Tian (CTO, Inventor) and Andrew Marsden (CEO) are 4th year PhD students at the University of Cambridge and will work full-time for the company from March 2016. Our team also has a product developer (Thomas Fry) and an expert in process scale-up (Dr Gonzalo Prados-Joya) working full-time.
Please confirm how you heard about the Unilever Awards:

Accelerate Cambridge

Please confirm your role in the initiative (eg Founder/co-Founder) and your organisational title:

CEO and co-founder

Which of the 8 UN Global Goals (Sustainable Development Goals) pre-selected for this competition does your solution relate most closely to? [select all that apply]

Affordable and Clean Energy, Climate Action.

Leadership and the Unilever Awards
Please provide examples of any previous entrepreneurial initiatives you have pioneered.

Since beginning my PhD at Cambridge University in September 2012, I have lead four major ventures that have developed my leadership qualities, and demonstrated entrepreneurial potential:

1) Caius Lower Boats’ Captain: My leadership was focused on attention to organisational detail. I lead 30 people, comprising 11 sessions per week, and only once did someone not turn up to a session. This organisational capability has translated well to my role in creating a new business.

2) Caius Telephone Campaign 2013/2014: Top caller in 2013 and 2nd in 2014, raising £200,000 for the college over 4 weeks. The skills I developed in negotiation, persuasion, and communication, have made me a competent fundraiser.

3) Founder of the University Bitcoin Society: In 8 weeks I built a committee of 20 people, hosted 8 events, got 300 members, and raised £15,000 in sponsorship.

4) MOF project: At the same time as leading the Bitcoin Society, I became involved in the spinout relating to this application. Over the past year I have worked closely with the inventors, raising £156,000 in funding.

Beyond your existing team, who else are you working with to achieve your objectives, eg partners, advisors, mentors?

We have built an experienced advisory board to fill gaps in our capabilities, and have acquired 5 advisors with expertise in leading at a board level (Kenneth Worthing), licencing technology as a business model (Tony Harris, of Accelerate Cambridge), the industrial gas markets (Colin Haden, ex Global Head of Products at Linde), medical devices (Mehryar Behizad), and sales and business development (Carlo de Stefanis). We are also a member of Accelerate Cambridge.