PODCAST: Carbon XPRIZE finalist CERT converts CO2 into ethylene

Meet Alex Ip, working on a potentially game-changing technology to remove GHG emissions from the atmosphere and create industrial chemicals used in a wide range of products.

Part 3 of our series of interviews with innovators competing in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE: an international competition to combat climate change by turning CO2 emissions into valuable products.

Energy Examined host Tracy Larsson chats with Alex Ip of Team CERT, a Toronto-based group that’s found a way using catalysts to turn greenhouse gas CO2 emissions from a power plant into all-purpose building-block chemicals like ethylene, used to create everything from tires and textiles to food wrap and shampoo.

Full transcript of podcast:

Tracy: Hi, everyone, this is the Energy Examined podcast. I’m Tracy Larsson. This episode, we’re catching up with another finalist in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. It’s an international competition driving teams to convert carbon dioxide emissions into other valuable products. Now joining me today is Alexander Ip. He is the co-founder and director of partnerships with Team CERT. Thanks for joining the podcast.

Alexander: Thanks so much for having me on.

Tracy: So, Alex, we’re going to call you guys Team CERT for short, but what does that actually stand for?

Alexander: Yeah, there’s actually a funny story behind that. We are a team that came out of the University of Toronto and when we first submitted our application to the XPRIZE, we needed to come up with a name last minute and being uncreative technical types, we just described exactly what we do. So, it’s Carbon Electrocatalytic Recycling Toronto. At some point we decided that’s a terrible name. So, it’s now just CERT.

Tracy: Alright. Well, it’s a lot easier to say, that’s for sure.

Alexander: You bet.

Tracy: So, Alex, you’re in Toronto and the rest of your team is actually in Calgary, right?

Alexander: That’s correct. They’re actually running the XPRIZE pilot right now.

Tracy: OK, so why don’t you tell us about the innovation that you and your team are working on for XPRIZE?

Alexander: Sure. So, we’ve developed a technology that takes in carbon dioxide, water and electricity, and we have a special catalyst that allows us to basically transform that CO2 molecule and reform it into different chemicals and fuels.

Tracy: OK, so you have three inputs, is that basically it?

Alexander: That’s basically it. So, what we’ve done is we’ve developed a special catalyst for the system and all we have to bring into that is the CO2, the water and the electricity. It operates at room temperature and ambient pressure. So, it’s a pretty simple set-up. And then out the other end, we get one stream of oxygen and the other stream is basically the products that we’ve converted the carbon dioxide into.

Tracy: OK, so tell us about those products. What are we looking at as kind of the end result of that process?

Alexander: Yeah, so for the XPRIZE, what we’re focused on right now is converting CO2 into ethylene. So, ethylene is actually a pretty simple molecule, but it’s kind-of like the building block molecule. It goes into a lot of different things. Basically, it can go into things like plastics. It can go into textiles or cosmetics. It’s basically the most widely used petrochemical in the world, and that’s because it’s so versatile. So that’s our focus for the XPRIZE. But we hope that this technology can be a platform technology that allows us to make lots of different sorts of molecules as well from carbon dioxide, because as long as they’re carbon-based, you can use carbon dioxide to make it. So, we’re also looking at things like ethanol or methane acetate, basically simple molecules that go into a lot of industrial processes down the line.

Tracy: So, if you’re looking at this as sort-of a platform then, what changes to get the different molecules as the end result? Is that a result of the catalyst that you’re using?

Alexander: Yeah. So, we can, we have a few levers that we can change. So, one of them, as you mentioned, is the catalyst. Depending on exactly what the formulation of that catalyst is, we can tune from one molecule to another. The other ways that we can change are, because it’s an electro-chemical technology, we apply a different voltage in different voltage ranges, usually one molecule’s preferred over the other. We’re also exploring some other ways that we can tune, such as maybe slightly changing the temperature or changing, actually the feed gas in, whether it’s pure CO2 or a mixture of CO2 and some other gases.

Tracy: OK, right now for the rest of the team there, they’re testing right at the XPRIZE, the testing facility. How does that end up being scaled up then and used in the real world, sort-of outside of that lab kind of environment?

Alexander: Yeah, that’s a great question. If you’ve ever been to an industrial refinery or a power plant, you can see there’s a lot of CO2 coming out that needs to be dealt with and a lot of volume. We actually started way down on the other side. As I mentioned, we came out of an academic lab. So, we’ve done a lot of scale-up already to get to the XPRIZE level. We started out basically putting a couple of electrodes into a beaker and that was about as large as we got. Now, our plants for the XPRIZE is basically about the size of a semi-truck. So, we scaled up quite a bit in the past few years and it’s just a matter of kind-of ironing out the kinks and multiplying the units out that we’ve made. What’s good about the type of technology that we have is that you can just kind-of build the same reactor multiple times. It’s basically a stack. It’s basically a fuel cell in reverse. So, you don’t actually need to build one gigantic reactor. You can, once we’ve shown that a medium-sized one works pretty well, we just build the exact same thing multiple times. And so that way we can scale to the size of the deployment that we’re looking for.

Tracy: What kind of impact does it make in terms of taking the CO2 out of the air? What is the volume that we’re talking about?

Alexander: Yeah, that’s a good question. So, in our process, if you simply look at how much CO2 goes into a molecule of ethylene, for instance, just from the carbon balance, you need to consume three tonnes of CO2 for every one tonne of ethylene that’s made. So, already it’s a significant amount of CO2 that’s going into one tonne of ethylene. And then you look at the amount of ethylene that’s made in the world. It’s about 200 million tonnes a year. So, you can see that there’s a significant opportunity to reduce the amount of CO2 that’s being emitted, not even considering how much CO2 is coming out from the current processing to produce ethylene.

Tracy: Right. OK, do you want to take a minute and just tell me about the rest of your team? How did you guys all come together as a group and how long have you been working together?

Alexander: Yeah, so we’ve actually had a lot of people working on the team through the years, and that was kind-of the nature of, again, being from a university group. So, I think we’ve had upwards of 20 people at some point or another being on the XPRIZE team. A number of them have gone on to start their own research groups or work in industry or work in government. Following that, really in the last two years, I would say, for the finals of the XPRIZE, we’ve kind-of gone down to a core team of about eight people. Christine Gabardo, the co-founder of CERT, is currently leading up the XPRIZE pilot project. So, she’s the one that’s kind-of organizing the crew there. She again comes from one of the labs at the University of Toronto. And she’s really taken on leading the pilot project and being on the ground, making sure that everything is running there, along with, of course, the other people on the team.

Tracy: How has the process been for a longer-term project like this? I mean, how do you break it down because. It’s nice to have milestones to celebrate along the way when you’re doing something that’s so long-term.

Alexander: Absolutely. Yeah, so I mean, for the XPRIZE as a whole, we started I think [in] 2016 going through to the different rounds and so that one is broken up into a smaller demonstration in a lab. And then in 2018, we were announced to get into the finals, and then planning to get a pilot out in the field at a power plant, took a lot of different steps and a lot that we hadn’t really been involved with before. I think just getting all the permitting, for instance, to be able to even set foot on site was a big struggle and a big win to be able to get on there. More recently, I think we were really excited about a month ago now where we were able to actually turn on the system and let it keep running 24 hours a day. That was a big milestone for us because that was something that hadn’t been shown, first of all, at this scale for a CO2 electrolyzer and certainly not for the length of time that we’ve been running since we turned it on to keep it running 24 hours a day.

Tracy: OK, here’s a chance for you to brag about your team, I guess a bit, and maybe the innovation that you’ve been working on for so long. What other recognitions have you already received? Because I know that you have.

Alexander: Yeah, thanks so, besides the XPRIZE, which has been an amazing opportunity and we’re really excited to be competing now in the finals, one big thing was earlier in this year, pre-COVID, before everything happening, we were announced as one of the winners of the Breakthrough Energy Solutions Canada program. So, this is a program that was jointly administered by Natural Resources Canada and the Breakthrough Energy Ventures group. And so, we were selected as one of 10 winners of that program and received one $1.4 million in order to continue developing this technology going forward. And so, we’re really excited to be part of that program and one of the first ventures in that group.

Tracy: That’s awesome. Congratulations.

Alexander: Thank you very much.

Tracy: Has anything changed for you or for your team now being an XPRIZE finalist?

Alexander: Certainly, I think just the whole ecosystem around carbon utilization and the recognition that the XPRIZE brings has been a huge boost for CERT. I think just having people understand the possibilities that there are with carbon dioxide and being able to use it in products. Now it’s something that companies and governments are actually talking about, actually seeking out. So, from that perspective, the XPRIZE has been really great for us. The other flipside to that, I think for us as a team is, really realizing how much of the technology can be scaled and how quickly it can be scaled. As I mentioned, we started out basically making things in beakers and now we’ve been able to scale, you know, many thousands of times in a couple of years. I think we believe more than ever that this is a solution that can really make a difference in the world.

Tracy: What kind of impact do you hope to have, I mean, so the Carbon XPRIZE specifically is about addressing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon conversion and I mean, ultimately XPRIZE itself is about spurring innovation. So, yeah, what’s that ultimate impact that you hope you can have?

Alexander: Yeah, I mean, certainly one of them is reducing GHG emissions globally, that’s something that we obviously know is really important. So, as I mentioned, our technology, we think as a platform technology, it’s a way of really being able to electrify, bringing some of that renewable electricity to transform the chemical industry and be able to use CO2 as a feedstock in order to not only, you know, not only show that we can use CO2 as the input into our base chemicals, but also as a way of closing that carbon loop. So, let me give you an example. Right now, a lot of ethylene is used to make plastics, which is a significant issue in the world with end of life plastic waste. And so, what happens nowadays is a lot of that ends up either landfilled or incinerated. And then, if you want to use new plastics, you have to basically start over, make some new ethylene and then process that all again. What we’re interested in doing is taking some of that end of life plastic, and if it’s incinerated, you’re just transforming that into CO2. And it turns out now we have a solution to transform that CO2 into ethylene. And so, if we can take that end of life plastic, take the CO2 from the incineration and transform it into new ethylene, we have managed to close that loop. And so, we see our technology and other technologies developed in XPRIZE as a way of really making that circular economy happen.

Tracy: That’s a great example, thanks for that. It makes it much more tangible, right, for us who are not with you in the lab and haven’t been part of this, to tell what it is that you’re doing and what you hope to accomplish. I’m just wondering, do you have, have you had any contact with any other XPRIZE teams and sort-of insight into what they’re working on? Have you been looking at them as well?

Alexander: Yeah, definitely so I think through the competition, we’ve had a lot of contact with them. We’re excited about the work that they’re doing as well. There’s some really cool technologies. On site now — and I was I was actually on site the other week — it’s a little bit tougher to see what people are doing. There’s a lot of buzz because the competition’s kind-of starting to wind down and it’s going to finish in about a month. So, everybody’s kind-of in their in their own buildings running their equipment. So, we can’t see exactly what they’re doing now. But there’s definitely a lot of excitement. And, you know, we do manage to catch up from time to time now they’re all a little bit busy. But I think once everything is done, I’m sure we’ll hop on Zoom or something and have another chat.

Tracy: Yeah, for sure. Hey, so, like, regardless of whether or not you win the XPRIZE competition, you’ve done something incredible here. What are the next steps then for you and for the CERT team?

Alexander: Yes, so we just want to keep pushing this technology forward. We definitely don’t see the end of the XPRIZE competition as being the end of CERT. You know, we ended up spinning out a company out of the University of Toronto and we’re looking to further develop the technology, to hammer out some of the things that we found during really quickly scaling up for the XPRIZE that need a bit of tweaking. And then, we hope that we’ll be ready to start deploying on industrial sites and really start the transition into a circular economy.

Tracy: Alex, best of luck and thank you very much for joining the podcast today.

Alexander: Thanks so much, Tracy. Thanks for having me.

Tracy: That was Alex Ip from Team CERT, one of the finalists in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. You’ve been listening to the Energy Examined podcast. Please subscribe and tune in for future episodes.

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