ANU alumna Sophia Hamblin Wang. Photo: Jack Fox

Cementing the future of climate action

ANU alumna and sustainability entrepreneur Sophia Hamblin Wang is leading the international development of carbon capture and utilisation, Rohit Alok writes.  

Sophia Hamblin Wang can show you the future. It’s a dense, grey rectangular cement block that weighs about 800 grams and fits in the palm of her hand. In a past life, that cement block was carbon dioxide (CO2). Now, it could become a house. Or a school.   

Over the years Hamblin Wang has become used to its weight as she carries it with her to demonstrate what climate action can look like.   

The block was made by Mineral Carbonation International (MCi), where she is Chief Operating Officer. The Canberra-based technology company specialises in transforming CO2 from gas to solid objects like cement and plasterboard.     

“Telling people about the opportunity for climate action, industry creation and emissions reduction is good, but being able to show them an actual cement block, brick or plasterboard that is made from industrial emissions is much more powerful,” Hamblin Wang says.  

“People can see and feel climate technology in action. It shows we can embed CO2 into our built environment, into our paper, washing detergents, fuels, lipsticks and much more.”    

As technologies improve to reduce the impacts of climate change, storing and repurposing emitted carbon dioxide has emerged as an exciting option. “It is actually possible to suck carbon emissions out of the atmosphere and turn them into useable materials. There’s plenty of CO2, which means there are plenty of opportunities to make profits,” she says.   

The sustainability entrepreneur and ANU graduate is one of the few female executives leading the development of carbon capture and utilisation in the country and around the world, championing Australian-led solutions.     

“The world is starting to take more notice of sustainability and carbon neutrality. A low-carbon future does not have to be at the expense of a general society’s lifestyle or its jobs,” she says.   

She points out that the global market in sustainability is estimated to be worth US$6 trillion and Australian technologies could play a significant role in carbon usage utilisation.      

Hamblin Wang’s bond with the environment began when she was a child in Kurrimine Beach, a small town of 750 people south of Cairns and near the Great Barrier Reef. The local tourism, fishing and farming industries nurtured her interests in protecting ecosystems. Her feelings about the environment deepened when her beloved Kurrimine Beach was badly damaged by two cyclones.    

The tragedy, coupled with her studies in international business at ANU, further inspired Hamblin Wang’s career in sustainability.    

“My Honours research at ANU extensively investigated corporate social responsibility. This academic exposure accelerated my fascination, intrigue and passion to create a real-world difference by designing business models with high social impacts,” she says.     

At MCi, Hamblin Wang now helps emitters see their CO2 as a resource that can be turned into value, not just harmful waste.   

Hamblin Wang believes all hands should be on deck as we move through the ‘decade of action’ left to mitigate climate change. That’s why she is also a member of the ACT Climate Change Council, a Co-founding Director of the environmental thinktank CO2 Value Australia and the outgoing curator of the Canberra Hub for the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Shapers initiative. 

“Given the clock is ticking to avoid catastrophic tipping points, I have said ‘yes’ to numerous responsibilities as I see all of them as integral parts leading us to a roadmap for a net zero future,” she says.    

A low-carbon future does not have to be at the expense of a general society’s lifestyle or its jobs.

 

Sophia has pushed for carbon capture and usage to be taken more seriously at a global level.

In 2019, she attended the first-ever United Nations Youth Climate Summit in New York and discussed carbon mineralisation as a way forward. In January 2020, Hamblin Wang represented Australia at WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, which she says was a formative experience, both personally and professionally.

“WEF 2020 was the first time in my life that I really felt my voice was necessary and powerful, particularly in a forum often dominated by older white men discussing the future of the world,” Hamblin Wang says.     

“In Davos, as a young woman of colour working in STEM, I found I could sit up tall and make sure my voice was heard. I didn’t experience the imposter syndrome that I have sometimes encountered in my past.”    

The experience gave her renewed confidence.  Now, within a circular carbon economy impacted by COVID-19, there are new opportunities for Hamblin Wang to support companies to repurpose their emissions.   

“I see this as a great opportunity to work with companies to develop new paths as opposed to the previous business-as-usual-thinking, where companies were delaying making net zero pledges. The pandemic has brought emitters additional understanding and respect for science and scientists.”