Innovation Profile: Stephane Germain of GHGSat

Aerospace meets oil sands: Montreal entrepreneur Stephane Germain develops space tech that helps monitor GHG emissions on Earth.

Stephane Germain is a physics engineer and an entrepreneur on a mission. He wants to use space technology to make the Earth a better place to live.

Stephane Germain founded GHGSat with a goal of providing satellite solutions for environmental issues. Photo credit: Alex Tran

Germain is the president, CEO and founder of GHGSat, a Montreal-based aerospace company that specializes in satellite technologies capable of monitoring greenhouse gas (GHG) and air quality gas (AQG) emissions from any industrial site in the world.

A Satellite Named Claire

In 2016, GHGSat launched the world’s first satellite system in collaboration with Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), as well as several other companies within diverse industrial sectors. Together, they are looking to test a new approach to measuring GHG emissions coming from industrial facilities and operations around the world.

The satellite—nicknamed Claire after the newborn child of one of the project’s supervising engineers—is small, about the size of a microwave oven. However, it packs some serious technology, including a lightweight imaging spectrometer.

“Every gas in the atmosphere absorbs light, and so has a spectral fingerprint,” Germain explains. “Our instruments look at these very specific wavelengths in the atmosphere and determine how much light is being absorbed.

“That tells us how much carbon dioxide or methane is present. We do that in a 12 by 12-kilometre field of view, and it is all completed within a few seconds.”

Measuring GHGs from Space

If successful, Claire could represent a step change in how GHG emissions are measured in the oil sands—allowing for measurements that are potentially more accurate, timely and cost effective.

Current methods of measuring what are called ‘fugitive’ emissions (unintended or irregular emissions of gases) from oil sands mining operations, both from the ground and in the air, have a degree of uncertainty.

That’s partly because readings typically take place once a year, and involve an expensive and time-consuming process, one that does not allow for measurements to be made over longer time periods and in different seasons to gain a better understanding of variations in emissions.

In contrast, the nanosatellite Claire can cover the entire planet to take readings from anywhere on the Earth, in near real-time, once every two weeks. Readings can be taken in varying weather conditions, and in all four seasons.

COSIA and its member companies jumped on the opportunity to utilize this state-of-the-art technology from the get-go, as, if successful, it would be a significant tool for oil sands producers in their efforts to reduce their GHG footprints. By allowing them to quickly identify and locate sources of emissions from places such as tailings ponds and mine faces, producers could take steps to eliminate or reduce those emissions, and then measure and evaluate the success of their actions.

Innovation Startup

The origins of Claire can be traced back to 2010 when California and Quebec announced a trade scheme that would set a market price for carbon dioxide emissions.

“At that time I had been working 20 or so years in aerospace, in various forms of space and satellite communications,“ Germain explains. “I always had an interest in commercializing technologies that could be used in space for everyday applications on the ground.

“I also had an interest in environmental issues, and heard increasing discussion about giving industrial operators financial incentives to manage and ultimately reduce emissions.”

Seeing the possibilities of enhancing GHG emissions measurements in the wake of the Quebec-California announcement, Germain and his colleagues conducted market research to determine potential demand.

“We talked to over one hundred potential customers,” Germain says, “We learned there was indeed a need from various industries to better understand their emissions through improved data.

“Then we looked at the technology, and convinced ourselves we could build something that could be carried on a spacecraft and that would serve the needs of the people we had just spoken to.”

The exercise came with a full set of challenges.

“Customers had never heard of this capability,” Germain notes, “The technology had to be proven; we had to hire top talent to advance the state-of the-art work, and we had to raise enough funding to get the system operational.

“It was, and continues to be, quite a ride.”

Today the team of 15 GHGSat employees, primarily scientists, is bolstered by a team of 35 sub-contractors. The company’s head office is in Montreal, and another primary office is set to open in Calgary in the coming months.

Oil Sands Connections

Of the coming build-up in Calgary, Germain says, “There’s nothing like being in the same time zone as your customers to appreciate what they go through every day, and to be closer and more responsive to their needs.

“That’s a commitment we’ve made to the oil and gas customers we have in Calgary, as well as Alberta government officials who are showing increased interest in our technology.”

The successful launch of Claire last year marks a significant milestone. Over the past year, four tailings ponds located within the Athabasca oil sands regions have been tracked with multiple readings to measure emissions. Results are currently being analyzed and will be made available to COSIA and participating organizations – Shell, Suncor, Imperial Oil and Canadian Natural – in the coming months.

Germain is proud of GHGSat’s partnership with COSIA and the commitment to environmental stewardship it represents for both organizations. “They’re looking at new ways of doing things better, and that’s just good, responsible business. It’s been a pleasure and positive experience to work with everyone.”

What the Future Holds

The early success of Claire has led to the go-ahead for construction of two more satellites.

“We’ve demonstrated the world’s first detections and measurements of GHG emissions from industrial sources, using a nanosatellite,” Germain says. “We attained many, but not all of our objectives with our first satellite, and everything we’ve learned is being applied to building our next two.”

Germain adds that the company remains a work in progress.

“There’s been some cool achievements, but we’re still a small business,” he says. “We’re at the slow beginning of the spiral where we are making customers aware of what we’re doing and getting the word out globally to as many people as possible.”

Ultimately, Germain aspires for GHGSat’s technology to become the global reference—a gold standard, if you will–for remote sensing of GHG and AQG emissions from industrial sites around the world.

For Germain, GHGSat represents a culmination of the two primary interests he has been furthering over the course of his professional life.

“I’ve always had a passion for commercializing satellite technology and showing how it can improve people’s everyday lives,” he explains. “Now I’d like to reach a point where people understand how the same technology can benefit the environment as well.

“It’s also an opportunity to make the world a better place for our kids. That’s why we wanted to name the satellite after one of our own children. My team of amazing innovators want to leave our planet in a better place than we found it.”

In this article, Context speaks with: