Last May a large convoy slowly made its way through the streets of Edmonton and along the highway to Calgary. Carrying an 86.5-tonne, 20-metre-long tank and escorted by police and utility workers, the convoy drew curious looks. Few would have guessed its purpose or ultimate destination at the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre (ACCTC).
Since its arrival, the equipment—a custom-made carbon capture unit—has become a showpiece of the ACCTC, located at the Shepard Energy Centre on the outskirts of Calgary. Here, technology developers test and refine carbon conversion technologies using flue gas from the nearby natural gas-fired power plant.
The new carbon capture unit, designed by ASCO CARBON DIOXIDE LTD in Switzerland based on a local technology provided by HTC Purification and built in Edmonton, intensifies this carbon dioxide (CO2) supply.
Around the world, entrepreneurs, startups and innovators are researching carbon conversion technologies. These technologies could be a huge difference-maker in the fight against climate change by diverting CO2 emissions from industrial smokestacks to create valuable products.
Many of the carbon conversion technologies being developed rely on certain concentrations of CO2; however, the CO2 levels in flue gas (waste gas produced from an industrial process) tend to be low and variable. The new unit solves this problem.
Using proven liquid-based technology, it concentrates lower CO2 flue gas from the power plant to nearly 99 per cent CO2 levels. In addition, it includes a solvent purification system for improved operating efficiencies.
“Technology developers are now able to use low or high CO2 flue gas concentrations to meet any industrial process requirements,” says Dr. Aref Najafi, who oversees the facility as site manager for InnoTech Alberta, which owns and operates the ACCTC.
The Carbon XPRIZE, ACCTC and future of carbon conversion
A chemical engineer by training, Najafi is used to tackling big environmental challenges. In his previous role as process innovation lead at Canadian Natural Resources, he helped to scale up new technologies to treat mining tailings. Now he’s excited by the kind of work taking place at the ACCTC. For him, it’s key to accelerating greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction technologies needed by industries in the province and elsewhere.
“We all know the pressure on large industrial emitters in Alberta and Canada to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We need to find new innovative ways to help support that—and that includes fast-tracking the development of carbon conversion technologies,” says Najafi, who took on his current role when the ACCTC opened in May 2018.
Currently Najafi is providing technical support to five of the 10 finalist teams from the US$20-million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition. The teams, which come from Canada and around the world, are demonstrating commercially viable ways to capture and convert CO2 emissions into usable products, like concrete, alcohol, plastics, soap and a host of other applications.
In addition to this collaboration, Najafi is leading an InnoTech team conducting its own research in carbon capture and utilization. The group is partnering with University of Alberta researchers on a technology that removes CO2 from flue gas and converts it into a water-soluble polymer to treat oil sands tailings. Already, they’ve completed a proof of concept.
Looking to the future, Najafi has big expectations for the research centre. Once the XPRIZE competition ends in spring 2021, Najafi says the ACCTC will open to other innovators and startups interested in further developing their carbon conversion technologies. He’s already received numerous project proposals from universities.
“There’s so much capability that can be brought into the space of carbon conversion and utilization. It’s been largely untapped up until now. This is a real opportunity for Alberta and Canada.”