Canadian companies on the road to carbon riches

It’s going to take more than windmills, solar panels and energy efficiency to slow global warming, according to Issam Dairanieh, chief executive officer of CO2 Sciences, the research and development arm of the Global CO2 Initiative (GCI). It’s also going to take a major effort to tap industrial smokestacks, separate out the CO2 and permanently remove it from the atmosphere. And if the industry is going to go through the expense, it might as well make some money off it by spinning that carbon into marketable products.

“Conventional wisdom favours strategies like decarbonization and adapting to the impacts of rising temperatures,” says Dairanieh. “While these tactics are part of a necessary response, CO2 Sciences believes carbon capture for reuse to be the complementary market-driven approach we need to keep temperature increases under two degrees Celsius.”

In January 2016, GCI was launched to help develop the carbon product industry and commercialize new carbon products using recycled CO2 as a key ingredient, such as cement, aggregates, chemicals, polymers and carbon fibres. CO2 Sciences will award research and development funding to qualified research applicants creating innovative technologies. The GCI commercialization arm will work in parallel to accelerate the market for CO2 products by investing in commercial-stage companies.

As a first step, GCI developed A Roadmap for the Global Implementation of Carbon Utilization Technologies. After assessing almost 180 global technology developers on the basis of their technology feasibility, readiness, markets and momentum, initial research has revealed significant progress in CO2 utilization has been made in 2011-16. The report shows that, through broad scale commercialization of products derived from CO2, there are sizable market opportunities while mitigating CO2 emissions.

“Our findings illustrate just how feasible CO2-utilization technology is for meeting both economic and environmental objectives,” says Dairanieh. “Our roadmap identifies tangible actions we can take to further adopt these technologies on a global scale while expanding new opportunities among several markets and industries.”

The roadmap says commercialization of CO2-based products will help mitigate emissions and represents an annual revenue opportunity greater than $800 billion. It identifies four major markets that could potentially be scaled up and are already on the road to commercial production, including building materials, chemical intermediates, fuels and polymers. It adds that “some CO2-based products are commercially viable today, and investment can be profitable without waiting for policy incentives.”

Other technologies need investment, market development or policy support to reach their potential. Increased funding and incentives are necessary for some of the markets to accelerate development and achievement of full-scale capability.

Through carbon-based products, industry has the potential to use seven billion tonnes/year of CO2 emissions by 2030 — the equivalent of approximately 15 per cent of annual global CO2 emissions, according to the roadmap.

Canadian companies already on the road to carbon riches

Canadian companies in a variety of industries are already building the carbon products market, spurred on by competitions like the Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) Grand Challenge and the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. The ERA Grand Challenge recently announced its four finalists, while there are nine Canadian companies still in the running for the Carbon XPRIZE.

As a staring point, finding a cheap, efficient way to capture CO2 from industrial sources is fundamental to creating carbon products. Conventional technology for the capture and production of pure CO2 from industrial processes usually relies on chemical amine solvents, such as monoethanolamine and piperazine. These, however, require high-grade process heat for solvent regeneration and, therefore, are relatively inefficient and costly.

Quebec-based CO2 Solutions is using enzyme-based CO2 capture to attempt to address this issue.

“Our patented technology allows for the efficient capture of CO2 from large stationary emissions sources such as power and steam generation plants, oil production and refining operations, and cement plants, while leveraging existing gas scrubbing equipment approaches already known to industry,” says the company.

CO2 Solutions’ technology is built around the use of the carbonic anhydrase enzyme that efficiently manages CO2 during respiration in humans and all other living organisms. Employing a saltwater solvent similar to seawater in combination with the enzyme, the result is what the company calls an “industrial lung” for carbon capture with low operating and capital costs using known equipment infrastructure.

The process captures and produces a highly pure stream of CO2 that can be reused or geologically sequestrated.

Targeting the cement and concrete industries

With the global cement market manufacturing around four billion tons/year and generating $300 billion in revenues, it is little surprise a number of Canadian companies are targeting this market. Add in the concrete market with 33 billion tons/year produced, and you have a $1.3-trillion industry. But that industry comes with a cost. It produces around five to seven per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. The GCI roadmap estimates the market for carbon products in the concrete industry could reach between $150 billion and $400 billion by 2030, depending on whether it receives policy, market and technological support. The closely related aggregate business could add another $15 billion to $150 billion as technology in this market is not as advanced. If carbon products can meet maximum saturation, the two markets combined could eliminate around five billion tons of emissions.

Nova Scotia–based CarbonCure Technologies is targeting the cement market with a unique technology that reduces greenhouse gases, while also providing significant economic benefits to concrete producers. The technology is currently installed in nearly 50 concrete plants across North America.

The CarbonCure technology uses CO2 captured from the emissions of local industrial polluters by gas suppliers across the country. This purified and liquified CO2 is delivered to CarbonCure’s concrete producer partner’s plants in pressurized tanks where it is injected into wet concrete while it’s being mixed. The technology is integrated with the producer’s batching system and has no impact on normal operations.

When CO2 is added to the concrete during mixing, it reacts with water to form carbonate ions. The carbonate then quickly reacts with calcium ions released from the cement to form solid nano-sized calcium carbonate (limestone) minerals, meaning the CO2 has become permanently bound within the concrete and will never be released back into the atmosphere.

Nano-materials, in the form of extremely fine particles, are known to enhance the material properties of concrete, but their use has been limited by production, process integration and cost barriers, says the company. The CarbonCure technology enables concrete producers to form well-dispersed nano-materials within their concrete in a practical and affordable way.

Ready-mixed concrete producers see an average strength improvement of approximately 10 per cent when comparing concrete injected with CO2 to the control. Masonry concrete producers see a neutral to positive affect on compressive strength. The improvement to compressive strength enables ready-mixed concrete producers to optimize their mix design, which typically includes reducing cement content. On average, CarbonCure ready-mixed concrete producer customers are able to reduce cement by five to eight per cent and maintain the original compressive strength without affecting the concrete’s fresh properties, according to the company. The production of cement creates about five per cent of the world’s CO2 greenhouse gas emissions. The ability to reduce cement prevents additional CO2 from being produced.

CarbonCure is currently competing in both the ERA and Carbon XPRIZE challenges. It recently advanced to the second round of the ERA competition, receiving $3 million to continue advancing the commercialization if its technology. “We are grateful for this funding, but what this also means is that Canadian technologies can lead,” says Robert Niven, CarbonCure’s chief executive officer and founder. “This is an opportunity which is an open race right now, and Canadian companies are certainly leading the charge to be able to take advantage of this new market opportunity.”

CarbonCure believes it can cut Alberta’s emissions by one megatonne/year and save concrete companies more than $700 million if its technology is widely accepted.

Efforts are also underway to gain a foothold in the aggregates market through Yixin Shao’s work. Shao and his team at McGill University are working on using an advanced self-concentrating absorption process to produce low-cost CO2. The CO2 will then be collected and converted into calcium carbonates and carbonate bond aggregates. The artificial aggregates will be used in precast concrete products.

Chasing the chemicals market

The GCI roadmap estimates the market for CO2-based fuels, chemicals and polymers could reach anywhere from $13 billion to $290 billion by 2030, depending on development support. Over 2.1 billion tons of CO2 emissions could be avoided if the market takes off.

Mangrove Water Technologies, a spin-off company from the University of British Columbia (UBC), wants a piece of that market. It is working to commercialize a technology that simultaneously converts CO2 and saline waste water into value-added chemicals and reusable water. Its economic and environmental impacts could be considerable.

Formed by past and present members of professor David Wilkinson’s research group in the UBC’s department of chemical and biological engineering, Mangrove is another ERA second-round winner. Mangrove’s technology targets CO2 and saline waste water from oil and gas operations. The technology—an electrochemical reactor equipped with ion-selective membranes—desalinates the waste water and converts the CO2 into carbonate salts and acids for on-site use by the oil and gas industry.

Easy to operate, transport and scale to industrial levels, the modular technology offers an economical alternative to conventional desalination and CO2 removal processes.

When coupled with a waste-gas-to-power system, Mangrove’s technology could annually remove more than one megatonne of CO2, or about the annual carbon emissions from 210,000 cars, and conserve more than 11 million barrels of water, or about 770 Olympic-sized swimming pools, in Alberta alone.

A team at the University of Alberta (U of A) is also chasing the chemicals market. Using a fuel cell, the U of A has created a reaction to combine methane (CH4), CO2 and oxygen to produce carbon monoxide (CO), water and electricity.

Fuel cells are normally used to generate electricity while burning a fuel. When fossil fuels are used, electricity generation leads to greenhouse gas emissions. However, in this case, the fuel cell simultaneously eliminates CO2, produces an important industrial raw material and still generates an amount of electricity comparable to a normal fuel cell. The U of A’s fuel cell consists of an electrolyte tube with the CH4-plus-CO2 mixture on one side and air on the other. A mixture of CO and water comes out from the downstream end, and the produced CO can be used as a raw material to make many important industrial chemicals, including methanol.

The focus market is Alberta as it has a large availability of natural gas and many sources of CO2 emissions. The U.S. will also be a large market for similar reasons.

While these projects focus on chemicals or chemical precursors, the holy grail of CO2 products is the fuel market, where the roadmap estimates up to $250 billion in revenues could be waiting by 2030.

Ontario-based Pond Technologies is chasing that market.

Pond has spent years developing the design, manufacturing and operating protocols for an LED-illuminated photo-bioreactor. The photo-bioreactor is an enclosed tank containing a continuous algae bloom, where rapid algae growth converts industrial greenhouse gas emissions into algae biomass. The algae biomass is then used as feedstock for biofuels in an accelerated replication of natural carbon cycles.

Pond sparges industrial flue gas directly into large photo-bioreactors, whereupon the CO2 dissolves out of the sparging bubbles and into the aqueous growth medium. Industrial flue gas however, contains much more CO2 (five to 20 per cent by mass) than the ambient air (0.04 per cent). To make algae grow fast enough to fix that much CO2, Pond has designed the largest, most energy-efficient LEDs in the world, along with a unique passive cooling system and an associated light distribution system. As these LEDs provide the illumination to initiate and maintain rapid growth, its custom system harvests the algae as it grows, creating a continuous algae bloom.

Algae is one of the fastest-growing organisms in the world, consuming almost twice its weight in CO2, making it an ideal medium to capture carbon.

The value of algal biomass is in its conversion rate into fuel: one tonne of algae can yield 100 litres or more of diesel. The residual biomass can also be used as a renewable coal substitute.

While the technology isn’t yet commercial, in January, Pond and SNC-Lavalin entered into a strategic partnership to develop and deliver Pond’s carbon-recycling technology worldwide, and the company hopes this will speed its progress. Together, Pond and SNC-Lavalin will design, propose and construct projects using the technology.

“We believe that the pairing of Pond’s technology with SNC-Lavalin’s global engineering and project management capabilities will accelerate the deployment of our algae growing platform worldwide,” says Steve Martin, Pond’s chief executive officer and chief scientist.

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