He’s a Calgary-based entrepreneur and innovator who is making a splash with a technology that could help change the world for the better in its battle against climate change. However, none of this would be possible, says Apoorv Sinha, if it weren’t for second chances.
It wasn’t too long ago when this 20-something co-founder, president and CEO of Carbon Upcycling Technologies learned an important life lesson.
Growing up in Kuwait, Sinha was a self-described intellectual bully during high school. He picked on classmates in a misguided attempt to fit in.
Foolish, yes, he admits. But, eventually he changed his ways. To this day, he remains incredibly grateful to everyone who gave him a second chance.
“There were a lot of people who stayed with me after that phase I went through,” Sinha says. “I know first-hand the enormous value of second chances.”
Second Chances: Path to the XPRIZE
More than a decade later, Sinha is a major player in Calgary’s emerging technology scene.
He leads a business that gives a second chance to what many see as among the most villainous molecules around – carbon dioxide emissions.
In 2015, while pursuing a Masters degree in chemical engineering from the University of Calgary, Sinha found a way to convert carbon emissions into high-quality nanoparticles. These particles, he discovered have some pretty useful properties. They can be mixed into other materials, such as concrete and plastic, to make those materials stronger or more efficient.
“This is enormous for a company of our stature.”
Soon after, Sinha founded Carbon Upcycling Technologies. And now the company is one of 10 finalists in the US $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition.
This multi-year global competition challenges teams to transform the way the world addresses carbon dioxide emissions through breakthrough technologies that convert CO2 emissions from power plants into valuable products.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for us,” says Sinha. “This is enormous for a company of our stature. We’re small and relatively new to the market, but it speaks volumes to what the team has accomplished to get us on an international playing field.”
The Journey: From idea to entrepreneurial start-up
Carbon Upcycling began the way many small start-ups do. It was born from a promising idea and the blue-sky thinking of a team that came together to identify early-stage technologies and commercialize them.
This team included oil and gas industry veterans Greg Boser and Randy Cusson, who formed an organization called ZeroCor Tubulars. Sinha joined ZeroCor in 2012 as research manager to expand and manage the firm’s relationships with academic and research institutions around the world.
It proved the beginning of a great partnership.
“I’ve never met anyone with Apoorv’s energy level and intellect,” Boser says. “He’s obviously a very, very sharp young fellow. And that, combined with his intense interest in learning and his inquisitive nature, really helped to move things forward.”
Sinha, who grew up in the oil industry in Kuwait, hit the ground running. He quickly identified an academic study on carbon sequestration from a U.S. university to test, evolve and apply in the real world.
“The CO2 capture process behind Carbon Upcycling progressed along with 20 other technologies,” says Boser. “And it wasn’t very long before we began to see promising results. When we saw we could permanently capture CO2 gas, we began to take steps to expand this work.”
Carbon Upcycling was founded in 2014, with Sinha taking the lead as president and CEO.
Under Sinha’s leadership, Carbon Upcycling expanded its academic and industry partnerships to more than 50 organizations. And in 2017, Carbon Upcycling became the youngest carbon utilization company to generate revenue—doing so after only two and a half years.
Carbon Upcycling has been supplying a corrosion mitigation coating product, built with carbon emissions feedstock, to a major manufacturer in the U.S. The client uses the Carbon Upcycling coating to fortify the patio paving stones it markets from four locations.
Like Swiss cheese: Turning CO2 emissions into stable nanoparticles
Carbon Upcycling’s process begins with what’s called a low-grade carbon feedstock: a piece of graphite, coke or fly ash. They then prepare the surface area of this material so that it absorbs CO2 gases that are passed over it.
Sinha compares it to a block of Swiss cheese: “It’s got all these little holes which are now entrapping CO2.”
Sinha notes that the CO2 thus captured is stable—it won’t release back to the atmosphere. Tests show that the CO2 stays where it is even when the material is heated to two times the boiling point of water.
However, what really excites Sinha is the properties of the material created.
“What’s different about our process is that you can actually use that filler with the CO2 in place as a reinforcing agent for polymers—so plastics—for concrete products, as well as for asphalt and coatings.”
With every ton of CO2 that Carbon Upcycle captures, the company is able to produce five tons of carbon nanoparticles as ingredients to mix into the potential applications.
Just the Start: Pushing the limits of possible
This first commercialization of Carbon Upcycling’s patent-pending technology to absorb CO2 emissions and create something useful is likely just the start.
In addition to concrete, Carbon Upcycling sees a potential second chance for carbon emissions in the forms of plastics, pharmaceuticals and batteries.
While the potential is great, challenges do remain. Tapping into global markets from Alberta will require additional expertise and investment in the years ahead.
The company isn’t deterred.
"When we saw we could permanently capture CO2 gas, we began to take steps to expand this work.”
“It’s always been our intent from the get-go to explore and push the limits of the existing knowledge base and change the way industry works,” says Boser. “We want to bring new technology to market to make society more efficient.”
To that end, the Carbon Upcycling team is hard at work at the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre in Calgary. The centre is where five of the 10 finalists are working to test and validate their technologies at a commercial scale, using CO2 emissions from a working natural gas power plant. The teams are preparing for final judging in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition, which occurs in 2020. (Note: The other five finalists are testing their approaches using carbon emissions from a coal power plant located in Wyoming, United States.)
For Sinha, seeing Carbon Upcycling progress is immensely gratifying. It reinforces for him the lesson he learned many years ago: second chances are a good thing.
“I urge you all to give second chances more often,” he says. “Because I believe that if we are willing to reexamine ideas, places, or people we have written off, then we might just find that they are full of possibility.”