Pretoria-based innovator ASP Isotopes lists on Nasdaq, sees bright future

Paul Mann, chairman and CEO of ASP Isotopes, shares the inside story of the Pretoria-based company whose ground-breaking technology puts it at the global forefront of a rapidly expanding sector. In this interview with Alec Hogg of BizNews, the US-based chemical engineer-turned-investment banker Mann explains what attracted him to the SA company; how its scientists reversed a longstanding global practice and why demand far exceeds the supply of his high-value products. – Alec Hogg

Paul Mann on how he found the South African Isotope related business

Yes. So the opportunity got presented to us a couple of years ago. The South African scientists started to run out of money while they were trying to build a very high tech isotope enrichment facility. And so we took a look at it and you know, I understand the industry very well, understand the end markets very well. And I recognised this could become a really interesting company if we put some more capital into it and structured it slightly and so we did that. It took about two years to do and I guess we actually incorporated the company 13 months ago in Delaware. We raised quite a lot of money from US investors, and we’ve invested that money in South Africa into a manufacturing plant which should be mechanically complete by the end of the year, January, that kind of timeframe. 

So we have two plants, both in Pretoria, South Africa. The first plant in which there’s molybdenum 100, that’s a very special metal, with applications for the healthcare industry. The second element we will enrich is carbon 14 that has uses in agrochemical and pharmaceutical developments. These are very, very specialist chemicals priced at, you know, thousands or in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars per gram. 

On what Isotopes are 

isotopes are basically the same element or the same chemical, but they are slightly different. They’ve got different numbers of neutrons inside the nucleus and that means they’ve got a slightly different mass to a slightly different weight. When you think about it, let’s take a packet of M&Ms, for example, lots of different colours of M&Ms. If you shut your eyes and tasted them, you wouldn’t recognise the difference between a blue one and a green one and a red one, but you can separate them out when you can see them. Now that’s not quite so easy with an isotope. We have to separate them out according to their mass and so we spin them very fast and the heavier ones separate from the lighter ones as we spin them. When we separate them out, these isotopes have certain properties that we can use for very special industries. Now our technology – when you think about a centrifuge, you have these huge tubes that spin very fast. They cost a lot of money to build. They’re very complex to build and sometimes things go wrong because there are lots of moving parts in them and our technology, the tube is stationary, it doesn’t move. We spin the gas inside the tube. And that has a number of advantages over the traditional centrifuges. First of all, the plants are a lot cheaper and a lot quicker to build. We can build a small scale plant for very specialist isotopes. Not a lot of time at all and not a lot of capital either, compared to a centrifuge that cost billions of dollars. So there’s a number of advantages: we separate light isotopes better than centrifuges. Centrifuges don’t work when the isotopes get extremely light. We actually prefer light isotopes to heavier isotopes and that has some applications in certain industries as well.

On the possibility of building more plants

Yeah, I would like to think so. I mean, there’s a lot of isotopes that we can actually use this technology for. Historically, the world’s largest supplier of isotopes has been Russia. So I think we’re really going into a new kind of renaissance of isotope production around the world. You know, this is a number of things driving that, that this sudden sudden change in supply demand dynamics of steps. The first is the shutdown of these old nuclear reactors. That’s going to take away a lot of supply. The second is there’s a very, very large emerging use of new isotopes, things like silicon 28, zinc 68 for very high tech industries. And the final thing is, Russia and Ukraine. A lot of countries have put self-imposed embargoes on taking products from Russia. And as I said, they’re the largest supplier of isotopes. We’ve had a lot of interest from potential customers for different isotopes. I mean, like Carbon 14, for example. We have a single customer there who has a supply of carbon 14. We signed an MOU to supply them with enriched carbon 14 at a price of $24,000 a gram. That’s a very high price, more than 400 times the price of gold. 

On if South Africans who are interested in the technology can buy shares on Nasdaq

I think it just trades on Nasdaq like any other normal share. And so people can just buy the shares and sell the shares as and when they want to. 

On if he has got a strategy to build more plants and if so, whether he’d you consider doing them in South Africa  

So we’re talking to a number of different potential customers of isotopes. We’re unlikely to build a plant for an isotope without a firm offtake agreement from a customer that guarantees a good IRR. I think they should be forthcoming. There are a lot of people who want to know about different types of isotopes. So I think within the next six months maybe we will find that type of customer, that type of contract, whether it is in South Africa or not. We’ll have to wait and see.  If Africa has a problem with energy in terms of the supply of energy, we use quite a lot of energy. So maybe we choose another location where the energy is cheaper. It’s possible. Also, isotopes may be produced for a government that may want the plant in their country. So we’ll have to wait and see. But, you know, we’ve got a great team of scientists here, a great team of construction crews, just built a plant. You know, even if we would put the plant in another country, let’s say the US or Europe or somewhere else, most of the plant gets construction built here and then shipped there and assembled there, essentially.  

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