Team CERT. Photo by Laura Pedersen.

Team CERT’s carbon conversion quest

These University of Toronto researchers may hold the catalyst for turning industrial CO2 emissions into useful products.

About 25 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are the result of electricity and heat production, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Finding a way to remove or eliminate these emissions would go a long way in the fight against climate change. One research group from the University of Toronto believes they may have the answer.

CERT (Carbon Electrocatalytic Recycling Toronto) has developed a technology to capture waste CO2 from power plants. Plus, the captured CO2 is converted into compounds that can then be used to produce consumer goods ranging from cell phones and water bottles to heating fuel and alcohol. The creation of useful products from CO2 is a vital step that adds a revenue stream that could help make this clean technology affordable on a wide scale.

University of Toronto team makes XPRIZE cut

CERT is a multidisciplinary team of scientists, post-doctoral fellows and researchers led by University of Toronto professor Ted Sargent. Other key players include Professor David Sinton, Thomas Burdyny, Cao-Thang Dinh, Phil De Luna and Alex Ip.

Their successes to date have earned the group a place in the finals of the international NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, where the CERT team will vie for a share of the US $20-million prize pool.

CERT entered the competition partly because they felt they had nothing to lose, and partly because the timing was right says Alex Ip, the team’s director of research and partnerships. “Prior to the start of the competition we were finding new efficiencies and breaking records in the lab with our technology every month. The Carbon XPRIZE was our opportunity to try to scale it from the bench top to a full-sized power plant.”

CERT’s Phil De Luna was both thrilled and shocked when his team qualified for the Carbon XPRIZE finals. Photo by Tyler Irving, courtesy University of Toronto.

The team also knew that if CERT made it through the first round, they would secure a grant from the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) to help fund the next step – something that was extremely important in driving the initial success of the project. “Once we knew we had the opportunity of funding, we realized it could be doable with their support,” notes Phil De Luna, CERT’s director of catalyst research. A partnership with the XEROX Research Centre of Canada in Mississauga followed.

This April, XPRIZE announced that CERT had made it to the finals, along with nine other teams from around the world. Getting this far in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition is an astounding achievement that caught the CERT team by surprise. With other entrants hailing from established companies, the members of CERT believed they were starting far behind their competition.

“I’m a scientist and highly skeptical. It’s in my nature,” says De Luna. “I thought our chances were slim-to-none. It was only at the 11th hour that we were able to get the technology to Round 2. It was very intense. My first reaction on learning we had made it through was disbelief, the second excitement, and the third, horror.

“To make it to the finals has far exceeded our expectation and we are thrilled that it has. It’s nice to prove yourself wrong now and then.”

Catalysts key to zero-carbon emissions

CERT’s technology is modular, scalable and has zero carbon emissions. It uses water and electricity at room temperature and atmospheric pressure to convert CO2 into fuels and chemical compounds through a process called electrocatalysis.

A few members of Team CERT: (left to right) Md Golam Kibria, Alex Ip, Jonathan Edwards, Cao-Thang Dinh, Alex Bushuyev, Phil De Luna. Photo by Laura Pedersen, courtesy University of Toronto.

A key to their approach is the use of new, high-efficiency catalysts (special substances that help trigger chemical reactions) developed by CERT. These catalysts make the entire process very energy efficient—a key factor in keeping the costs of carbon conversion low enough so it can become widely used.

An additional component of the technology is the use of excess intermittent renewable energy, such as wind and solar, to provide the electricity needed for the conversion process.

“Basically, what we’re doing is we’re taking CO2, and adding renewable electricity as an input, along with water. We are using a process similar to one that splits water to produce hydrogen.” says De Luna. “We’re actually splitting CO2 and producing new carbon products.”

By eliminating the need for heat and pressure to cause a reaction, along with the use of excess renewable energy sources, CERT’s process is not only innovative, it is considerably less expensive than traditional methods of electrocatalysis.

Not just the lab: real products for the real world

Successful real-world deployment of the technology has the potential to completely disrupt a number of industries, including power generation and petrochemicals, says De Luna. “It has the capability to replace many processes in a great many consumer product lifecycles,” he says. “It also offers a solution to the long-term energy storage challenge for renewable sources that are intermittent due to weather conditions (i.e. wind and solar). Our technology can use the excess renewable energy to turn CO2 into usable product.”

The point of the technology is to take CO2 and add value to it, adds De Luna. “The best place to get CO2 from is large emission sources such as power plants, the oil and gas sector, and others” he says. “We can turn the CO2 into fuel or feedstock that can then be sold as ethylene for plastics, methane for home heating, carbon monoxide for synthetic gas, or ethanol for drinking alcohol, to name a few applications. If something can be used rather than stored or wasted, it becomes valuable. This is the incentive to capture versus emit.”

For the oil and gas sector, the technology can help reduce carbon footprint and costs while adding revenue streams, notes Ip. “Our technology can reduce the carbon intensity of the entire process while creating products already used in the supply chain,” he says. “During gas extraction, for example, some amount of CO2 is currently vented out. We can capture that CO2, convert it to methane which is a major component in natural gas, and then use it. The result is a zero CO2 stream and more methane gas in the natural gas stream.”

The Carbon XPRIZE finals and beyond

The possibilities are all very exciting; however, the CERT team still has hurdles to overcome. A key aspect of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE challenge is to demonstrate the technology works reliably at a commercial scale. Soon after it was chosen as a finalist, CERT began testing their approach at the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre in Calgary, Alberta. Alongside four other Carbon XPRIZE finalists, they’ll attempt to convert CO2 emissions piped directly from a large-scale, working natural gas power plant. (The five other finalists will test their approaches at a coal-fired power plant located in Wyoming.)

To meet this challenge, Team CERT needs to scale up their process. “For the finals in 2019, we have to demonstrate the process working for 150 days. So far we are at one week. We have the technology, the key now is making it stable and finding partners to help get us there. It is very expensive to create a machine that has never been built before at the scale necessary to succeed,” says De Luna.

“The next two years are going to be a very challenging as we scale things up, tweak the processes as inevitable issues arise, ship the technology to the test site in Alberta, and meet the given timelines,” adds Ip. “However, if it all works out, the pressure will be well worth it.”

The entire team is extremely proud of their achievements to date. “We are motivated by the global drive to solve the CO2 issue and the interest being shown in our technology. Competing in the XPRIZE competition is a unique experience that has excited us to no end,” says Ip.

Adds De Luna, “We are grateful for the opportunity to compete in the finals, however the potential to change not only an industry but the way society interacts and uses energy is what makes the challenge so rewarding.”

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Alex Ip Team CERT Director of Research and Partnerships, University of Toronto
  • Phil De Luna Team CERT Director of Catalyst Research, University of Toronto