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Indigenous cleantech company’s journey toward solving the challenge of oil sands tailings

Paul Pede and Ontario-based Carbonix are developing cleantech that turns an oil and gas byproduct, petroleum coke, into a material used to treat industrial waste, including oil sands tailings.

It was a meeting that changed the journey for Ontario-based Carbonix, an Indigenous-owned cleantech company.

Six years ago, Paul Pede, Carbonix’s president and CEO, and his two business partners were attending a community event at Fort McKay First Nation in northern Alberta. Carbonix had developed a proprietary process that uses activated carbon to treat wastes. At the time, Pede was exploring business leads in the province, pitching the technology as a way to process charred wood following the Fort McMurray forest fires. At the meeting, Pede and his partners were introduced to Suncor CEO Mark Little.

“We were asked if petroleum coke could be used as a feedstock for our technology. The answer was an immediate ‘yes.’ We’d already done some investigation, and we knew it could work,” Pede remembers.

It was a pivotal moment for Pede and his company, which from then on intensified its search for carbon applications for the oil sands. That effort was rewarded in March this year when the company’s technology was selected as a finalist in the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN)’s Reducing Environmental Footprint Technology Competition (more on this later). CRIN funding is made possible by the federal government’s Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF).

Turning waste into activated carbon

Pede began work on the company’s technology in 2010 after co-founding Carbonix with Marvin Pelletier and Darren Harper. The three had previously worked together on resource projects involving First Nations and industry. With their company based at Fort William First Nation in Ontario, they saw substantial opportunities to help resource industries remediate environmental impacts to the land and water.

“We recognized the need for a new approach to resource extraction-related waste mitigation and remediation,” Pede says.

After some initial investigation, the team reached out to experts in Trent University’s chemistry department in Peterborough, Ontario. Through collaboration, the two groups tested different materials and ideas. Gradually, they came up with an innovative process, using nano-engineering, that could convert large amounts of petroleum coke and other wastes into activated carbon. The carbon’s highly porous surface could be tailored to absorb targeted industrial toxins and contaminants. At the same time, valuable metals or minerals could be washed out and recovered for added value.  

A vile of activated carbon being held by a human hand.
Carbonix’s process converts petroleum coke and other wastes into activated carbon–a material that can absorb industrial toxins and contaminants. Photo courtesy Carbonix.

“The activated carbon works like a molecular-level sponge to treat different environmental materials,” Pede says.

The resulting product could help operators to achieve reclamation targets while creating new economic opportunities. The team had found their niche technology.

To evolve their technology further, the Carbonix team worked with the university to move their process from the lab to a mini-pilot at SGS Lakefield Research, an industrial testing facility. At the same time, Carbonix strengthened its relationships with innovation agencies across the country. With the backing of the Ontario Centre of Excellence and Alberta Innovates, Carbonix started to explore business interest in Alberta.

That led to Carbonix’s conversation with Little in 2016 and the start of a partnership with Suncor. With funding support from Alberta Innovates, Carbonix and Suncor carried out a proof-of-concept study to evaluate the use of activated carbon to treat oil sands tailings.

“From the study, we know we can use industry-generated waste as a feedstock and convert it into a marketable high value product. This product can be functionalized for industry-specific remediation applications,” Pede says.

CRIN award funds efficacy testing

This work was recognized this spring when Carbonix’s tailings management project was a successful finalist in the CRIN competition, being identified for up to $900,000 in funding.

Carbonix and Suncor now plan to commission further testing of the technology at the Saskatchewan Research Council’s Pipe Flow Technology Centre in Saskatoon. Scientists at the centre will analyze the carbon product’s ability to remove various contaminants from tailings as the material moves through different pipeline configurations. At the same time, they’ll model the scaled-up efficacy of the product in larger oil sands pipe. Suncor will provide oil sands fluids samples and technical advice for the two-year project.

Headshot of Paul Pede, Carbonix President and CEO
Carbonix president and CEO Paul Pede says the company is testing its carbon product’s ability to remove contaminants from tailings. Photo courtesy Carbonix.

“The CRIN funding will enable Carbonix to scale up efficacy testing in a manner that is both relevant and representative of the needs of the oil sands industry,” Pede says.

If the testing succeeds, Pede says, the project will allow Carbonix to pursue business plans for a scaled-up production unit for an oil sands facility. Already the CRIN award is helping to increase the company’s profile among potential investors. 

“When investors see a company has been awarded by recognized bodies like CRIN, it helps them to understand our company’s technology has been scrutinized closely,” Pede says.

As the CRIN project takes shape, Pede and his team plan to expand the company’s suite of carbon products to treat abandoned hard rock mines in Ontario. As well, the team is exploring opportunities to leverage the technology’s capacity to recover valuable metals to create battery materials for the electric vehicle (EV) industry.

“We believe our technology can make a significant difference in addressing resource development issues while creating new economic opportunities.”