Finding ways to convert carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions into useful products could be the secret to turning a major global environmental threat into an innovation opportunity. But up until now a big hurdle has been the lack of suitable facilities where researchers can test innovative ideas at commercial scale and bring vital emission-converting technologies closer to market.
This just got a lot easier.
That’s because the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre (ACCTC) opened in Calgary this May. It’s a new carbon conversion research facility located adjacent to the Shepard Energy Centre, a gas-fired power plant owned by ENMAX and Capital Power. It becomes one of the few purpose-built test sites anywhere in the world where carbon conversion and utilization technologies can be tested at an industrial scale under real-world conditions.
“Technology holders will be able to bring their technology in and hook it up to our system. They’ll get a chance to see how their innovations work in an environment that’s as close to real world as can be,” says Ross Chow, Managing Director of InnoTech Alberta, an applied research organization that owns and operates the facility.
First up to use the new research centre will be five of the ten finalist teams for the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. The Carbon XPRIZE is a global competition offering a US$20 million prize purse to innovators who can develop breakthrough technologies that convert CO₂ emissions from power plants and industrial facilities into valuable products like building materials, alternative fuels and other items that we use every day. Starting June 2018, the teams take up residence at the ACCTC for a two-year period. They’ll work in five outdoor testing bays to refine and demonstrate their carbon capture and conversion systems, tapping into flue emissions from the nearby Shepard power plant. A pipe from the plant will provide a steady stream of flue gas, containing up to 25 tonnes of CO₂ a day generated from one of the plant’s natural gas turbines.
The results could lead to a breakthrough: turning CO₂ into a range of usable products. Teams have proposed converting CO₂ into everything from cement-free concrete to liquid fuels to plastics and carbon fibre.
“If we can prove these ideas at the larger industrial scale, it’s going to accelerate the adoption of new clean-energy technologies.”
“If we can prove these ideas at the larger industrial scale, it’s going to accelerate the adoption of new clean-energy technologies,” Chow says.
According to Chow, the facility fills a critical gap in the innovation development chain. “There’s a lot of work being done by universities and entrepreneurs on carbon conversion technologies. Up until now, we’ve not had a facility that allows testing at a near-commercial scale. This centre fills that need,” says Chow, who has more 30 years of experience conducting and managing applied research.
While it’s still early days for the ACCTC, Chow has big plans for the research centre. Once the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition ends in 2020, Chow says the ACCTC will be open to other innovators and startups interested in further developing their carbon conversion technologies.
“Any industry that uses natural gas as a source of fuel for its processes should be able to benefit from the work that takes place at the ACCTC,” he says.
The creation of the ACCTC was aided last March when the Alberta and federal governments announced a contribution of up to $20 million to build the state-of-the-art facility. In addition, seven members of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) have been actively engaged in its design and construction. Earlier this year, ConocoPhillips Canada, the COSIA Joint Industry Project (JIP) lead and prime construction manager, handed over ownership of the new facility to InnoTech Alberta, a subsidiary of Alberta Innovates, a provincially funded corporation with the mandate to deliver 21st century solutions for the most compelling challenges facing Albertans.
Chow says taking on day-to-day management of the facility is a “perfect fit” for InnoTech Alberta. The corporation works across different sectors to offer expertise and testing sites to accelerate technology adoption. With the opening of the ACCTC, InnoTech now operates 18 different scaled facilities.
“There’s a lot of work being done by universities and entrepreneurs on carbon conversion technologies. Up until now, we’ve not had a facility that allows testing at a near-commercial scale. This centre fills that need.”
Looking to the future, Chow hopes the ACCTC will become a global strategic research hub, drawing researchers and companies to Alberta to advance carbon capture and reuse. Right now, Chow is in discussions with Carbon Management Canada and other institutions to establish a cross-Canada network of different scales of carbon conversion test facilities. Within this network, the ACCTC could provide the final demonstration site before technologies are launched for industrial use.
As Chow sees it, the window of opportunity for the centre and its research is huge, as more and more companies become interested in putting CO₂ to new practical commercial applications.
“We believe we can do this in Canada,” says Chow. “We should be able to attract the interest to move more carbon conversion technologies through the innovation chain. This could lead to the establishment of new clean technology businesses in Alberta and Canada.”