Part 2 of our series of interviews with innovators competing in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE: an international competition to turn CO2 emissions into valuable products.
Energy Examined host Leighton Klassen chats with Greg Boser of Carbon Upcycling Technologies (CUT), a Calgary-based company that's found a way to sequester greenhouse gas CO2 emissions from a power plant into fly ash, which can be used to create valuable end products like concrete and plastics.
Full transcript of podcast
Leighton: I’m Leighton Klassen and this is the Energy Examined podcast. The NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE is an international competition to find ways to turn greenhouse gas emissions into useful products. Ten finalists have been chosen, each working to show off potentially game-changing technologies to address climate change, while also taking home a share of a $20 million grand prize. I'm here today with Greg Boser of Team Carbon Upcycling Technologies, one of the finalists in the competition, and they're from Calgary working on a technology that would turn CO2 emissions from a factory or power plant into an array of useful everyday products we use from things like concrete to plastics to solar panels. Greg, welcome to Energy Examined.
Greg: Thank you.
Leighton: All right. So, let's first start off with your innovation. What is your idea?
Greg: So our innovation is an idea that we spawned about six years ago where we can take the CO2 that's emitted from a stack, any flare stack, any emission stack, and permanently sequester that or capture it onto a solid particle. And that solid particle, the key to this process is that it's basically a waste particle. So as an example, fly ash, which is the ash that remains after you burn coal in a coal fired power plant, we're combining that ash with the CO2 that's emitted from that same stack and converting that into a very useful value-added product, which historically would have been a basically a very low-value waste product.
Leighton: I mentioned in the intro some of the things that can be converted – can you elaborate on some of these useful products?
Greg: Yeah, that's where I need to you need to kind-of warn me to stay within my time frame because unique to this process, we've identified over a dozen potential applications. So, really what's unique about this and the patent that we've applied for is around the process where we're actually taking that CO2 and combining it with the fly ash. We've also tested with a number of different alternative products. We've tested with graphene, with petcoke from oil sands just to name a couple. And what we've also done, when we create these initial products, they can be enhanced or utilized for a variety of applications.
So what we did about five years ago as we were testing these different products initially through our work at U of C, we would send samples off to research groups, professors basically all over the world who are working primarily with graphene, with graphitic nanoparticles, to use them for things like solar panels, drug delivery, and promoting our product as a very low-cost alternative. Our process is very energy efficient and it's very low-cost relative to producing graphene, as an example. So, that's what was our intent at the start. And now we've progressed to the point where we're starting to focus our approach on really two primary applications. One is the enhanced fly ash and one is the plastics enhancement.
Leighton: Okay. Now I know you and Apoorv Sinha are the co-founders of Carbon Upcycling. How did you guys meet?
Greg: Yeah, that's an interesting story. So that's going back probably about seven years ago. A mutual business friend of ours over a coffee one day had mentioned that he knew of this bright young chemical engineer who was just finishing up his Masters at U of C [University of Calgary] and was looking for something interesting to do. And at the time, we had our coding business going in the oil field, that was, we were progressing very well. And I thought that it would be a good fit for us to bring on somebody like that, to look at our coding formulations, look at improving, modifying them, that type of thing with that chemical background.
So that was the initial take on it. We met with Apoorv and he joined our team on a part-time basis while he was finishing his Masters. And that was his initial project was really reviewing what we were doing, looking at ways to enhance it and kind-of with his energy that evolved to beyond that scope. And the next thing you know, we were looking at all kinds of different applications. And as that evolved over the next year, we really identified, Apoorv really identified energy efficiency opportunities and the whole green landscape that we were looking at and diverted most of his time to focusing on that.
And then that's where he had identified this particular technology as something that would have some merit. And then from there, it was really analyzing it, vetting it. Is it not only, you know, obviously it needed to be carbon neutral or carbon negative, but also from our perspective as businessmen, we needed to see an end game where this would actually make money at some point in time. And so, when we vetted it, it seemed to fit, you know, fit, check off all the boxes. And so, we've progressed now to the point where, you know, we're kind-of semi-commercial.
Leighton: OK, yeah. So, the goal, one of the goals or the goal of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE is to find solutions that can help in the battle against climate change, kind-of as you alluded to. So, what kind of impact do you think your approach will have and have you had any initial success? I mean, there's been some obviously but ca you to speak to that?
Greg: Yeah. So, to your first question, I think that is probably from the non-business side that the biggest takeaway that we've gained from this is the impact that this technology can have on a global basis. So, when we talk about this enhanced fly ash, the primary application for it is in concrete. So, you know, it's, these are well known facts that in the manufacture of cement, for every tonne of cement you emit or you produce, you basically emit one tonne of CO2 into the atmosphere, cement that's, I think, attributable for something like five or seven per cent of all global emissions. So, that particular market, if there was a way to create efficiencies to either make production of cement more efficient or reduce the use of cement, there's a carbon negative effect there. So, with the process that we've developed, specifically the fly ash, what we've proven now in partnership with some industry partners is that by using this enhanced fly ash that we've created in a concrete blend, you actually use less cement, significantly less cement. So that cubic metre of concrete that you pour a sidewalk or a building with that might have had associated with it 200 kilograms of CO2 emissions, when you use this enhanced fly ash, you have the fly ash that we've bound the CO2 into, plus you have the reduction of the CO2 emitted from the cement. So that combined effect, although it's not significant per cubic metre, but when you consider the volumes globally, it would have a huge impact not only on CO2 emissions, but also on just overall efficiencies of that construction industry.
Leighton: Yeah, I don't think cement's going anywhere.
Greg: No, no, no. I mean, fortunately, it's a standard product that's going to be used for years to come. So, yeah, this this has the potential to have a huge impact. And then, you know, one of my pet peeves, of course, the oil industry is where we came from. So, we're actually working with a couple of companies now to introduce a fly ash blend for oil well cementing. So, both in the US with a company that we're dealing with down there right now and then one in Canada. And then as far as commercial successes, we were actually fortunate enough in there again because of our drive to be commercial and make sure that it's a business that's viable and not sort-of this perpetual research project is we focused very early on coming up with a commercially viable product.
And so, kind of in conjunction with some government support, we initiated some sales through the International Trade Commissioners. It’s a very useful organization and we've utilized it extensively, especially in the U.S. And that connected us to a very large cement producer in the U.S. And consequently, they identified a need that they had for a corrosion coating for their cement tanks. And so, we developed a chemical formulation and we've now commercialized that. That's been commercial for about a year. And one of the, there's multiple ingredients, but one of them is our enhanced product that we developed through our reaction.
Leighton: I want to go back to you and Apoorv for a second. Is there is anything that stands out when you were in the process of, you know, when you met him and when you kind-of figured, 'oh, he could be a good business partner,' was it a single conversation or a single event that happened where you just knew right away, 'hey, we could we can make something special here'?
Greg: No, it wasn't anything like that. It was more over time that as we, I think as we interacted and we also have another business partner who was a little bit more involved at the time and he was the, kind-of the guy that was trying to keep us focused. But I think what clicked with Apoorv and I, was really that inquisitive nature that I always want and so we would have, you know, we kind- of joked at each other that there was, you know, our real communication started at about 11 o'clock at night where, 'hey, what about this idea? What about that idea?' back and forth on e-mails. And so, it was just a natural fit and one fed off the other. And there was that energy and of course, Apoorv, young guy and just full of energy, like I mean, these guys even now they're working, you know, 70-hour weeks type of thing and they still keep going. So, yeah, but I think that was really what made, you know, kind-of made things work is that we both had that keen interest and one sparked the other. And then we were fortunate enough that we had, you know, a relatively successful oil field business that could support the research side and allowed us to sort-of bring that, and nurture that and bring that up to at least where we knew we sort-of had something. And then Apoorv kind-of grabbed the bull by the horns there and he initiated, you know, our first project where we were actually one of the early, the earliest carbon capture competition that he applied for and we were successful. We got through, I think, three rounds of that. And that brought in a little bit of funding. And then it was kind-of just, don't look back from there. This is our focus and we've gone for it ever since then.
Leighton: OK, great. Yeah, that's a good segue into my next question. So now it's the Carbon XPRIZE that's the big focus. Why Carbon XPRIZE? What attracted you to that?
Greg: It's a motivator with a timeline on it. So, you know, I remember in the semi-final round, we got through where, you know, that particular deadline I mean, it was pretty, pretty intense to meet that deadline. And there were no extensions at that point. And the team that we had brought together, there was really only three of us full-time that we managed to pull that off and be successful to get around to this final round. So, you know, we thought that was a big, big turning point. And now we're coming to realize that this one is much more significant than the previous one.
Leighton: Well, it sounds like it's been, you know, a good and interesting experience, I guess, so far.
Greg: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. It's been it's been very interesting. You know, as I mentioned, I'm not directly involved on a day-to-day basis now. But we still obviously keep in touch. And it's been pretty intense, you know, with the size of scale-up that we've done over this last eight months. It's, I mean, it's remarkable to see how this young group of kids really has come together and brought this to where it is now, where we're actually now in our final stages of actually producing fly ash at a fairly large scale relative to where we started. Yeah.
Leighton: That kind of leads --- so, you did say it's been pretty, pretty fast-paced and successful in the last eight months. But I do want to bring into the fact that, you know, it's COVID. We're in the pandemic. So, has there been any, has that affected at all, you know, trying to progress the research and the testing through this pandemic?
Greg: Yeah, not as much as some might think. I mean, we obviously, with the location that we're at, once COVID hit, there was, you know, almost an immediate lockdown, which means we couldn't even enter into the premises unless we had, you know, something, a shipment that was arriving. So, that was a significant delay. Fortunately, the XPRIZE team looked at that and extended the timeframe to get to the final. So, that was beneficial. But I think on top of that what every other industry player is dealing with: accessing products, getting our testing done, everything is sort-of slowed down. Even, you know, the products that we produce out there, we will send over to get them tested. And historically, you know, we could almost turn those around. They worked very well with us and in a lot of cases, they'd have those results for us the next day. Now, with, you know, COVID and everything else, everything gets delayed. So, it's definitely been a hindrance, I think, to the team, but, you know, to their credit, they've worked through this and, you know, kind-of fought through it and, you know, gotten us to where we are now. So, we're definitely not as far advanced, you know, as of October 28th as we'd want to be. But we're definitely in line, I think. We've got, we've overcome the major hurdles, I'd say to building this new prototype.
Leighton: OK, now you are in the stretch drive. And as I understand it, you've moved into the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre in Calgary where you'll be using CO2 emissions from an actual natural gas powered electricity plant and you're in the critical demonstration testing phase where you'll be judged on the amount of emissions used and the value of products produced with a winner to be announced in a very, you know, early in the New Year. So, though I know you can't reveal any trade secrets, how are things going so far? And, you know, any challenges, any big victories?
Greg: Yeah, we've definitely had challenges. Part of it is because of the scope of what we're doing. So, we've gone from our initial and we call it a reactor, but basically, it's our chamber where we actually react the feedstock with the CO2 and create these new particles. We've gone from, our initial reactor at the University of Calgary was probably about twice the size of this coffee cup to this prototype that we're building for the XPRIZE final now, which is just being commissioned, is I think, it's about 10 feet in diameter and about 35 feet long, has a capacity of eight to nine, eight to 10 tonnes of fly ash that we can process at any given time. So, it's a massive, massive undertaking versus where we were at. So, we've had some initial engineering problems, design problems. Fortunately, we were able to overcome those fairly quickly. One of the advantages of being at the facility in Calgary versus the one in Wyoming is this is our hometown. So, we have a lot of connections that we've been, that we've kind-of had to call on here at the last minute to help sort things out. Fortunately, the guys have done an admirable job of overcoming those to the point now, you know, when you talk about successes, I think the big one was to see this, our bigger prototype reactor commissioned here within the last, I think, two weeks type of thing. So, it's now running and we're, and early indications are, is that it is performing significantly better than what we had modelled and designed for. So, typically we might have been looking for cycle times of 24 hours to maybe as short a time as three hours. Now that follows into the economics where the less time that it takes to process, the less cost and the more valuable the product, the end product is. Yeah.
Leighton: So, I know that you're kind-of more in an advisory role right now, but you obviously know what the guys over there are up to.
Greg: Most of the time!
Leighton: So, what's a typical day like? Even for yourself, but like for them, like long crazy hours? You kind of alluded to it earlier, but what is it like?
Greg: Yeah, it's interesting. We just had a meeting with an oil field cementing company out at Strathmore yesterday, and that was about, you know, probably a two-hour visit. They're interested in the fly ash. After that visit, I had a chance to meet with Apoorv and Ryan for probably 45 minutes, just standing on the road, getting an update. But, you know, Apoorv's comment was that they have not missed a day at the site in the last 34 days.
Greg: So, it's pretty typical for those guys to be on site early in the morning and not necessarily leaving till late at night. So, a lot of that was due to the actual build. So a lot of it is, you know, a fairly high capital spend over these last four months and a lot of hands-on, a lot of contractors that we're bringing in to do, you know, the welding, the electrical, the plumbing, the gas fitting and that type of thing. It's a fairly significant program. You know, we're using a very high horsepower electrical motors to run our reactor. So, I can, I know that it's been a stressful test for all these guys. And like I say, I think it's just that young energy that keeps these guys going. I think they're really looking forward to at least when the XPRIZE is awarded and then kind-of everybody's breathes a sigh of relief and kind-of take a couple of days off type of thing.
Leighton: Yeah, or maybe a few right?
Greg: Or a few, yeah. Yeah.
Leighton: So, I want to talk a little bit about the, I guess the culture, if you will, of the XPRIZE. So, do you have much interaction with other teams? Is it, I mean it's competitive but is there sort-of rivalry building up or is it more of you know, you're all kind of in this together, you know, at the end of the day, I mean, in the same goal of reducing carbon?
Greg: Yeah, I think I mean, we all understand that we're all in this together. This is really a global project. And there's a global goal here. And that was certainly understood. And, you know, when things got started and you're all meeting together for that first time, it's almost like at the start of the race, you know, everybody's patting themselves on the back and we're all doing the right thing here. However, what I have observed kind-of from an outside, as an outsider type of thing, is that there's definitely a competitive nature to it and each team is a little bit different. So, what I've noticed with our team is that there's definitely, I'll hear things where the team beside us is actually helping us, where they have a very small footprint. They're allowing us to use some of their space. Other teams are very, very secretive about what they're doing, you know, so it's a bit of a mixed bag. But I would say at this point, since the competition and especially since we've kind of gotten into the heat of it, I think teams are getting-- and part of it is the stress and the timeline. Everybody's under the same stress and trying to create something out of basically nothing, you know, a couple of years ago. So, I think that's affecting people. So, yeah, I wouldn't say it's this nice, friendly competition where everybody's helping everybody out at this point in time. It's pretty competitive. You know, there's definitely a goal there that everybody wants to get to.
Leighton: Kind of like sports. There's sportsmanship. You still want to win the trophy. But at the same time, you know, when you need to help someone, you maybe do.
Greg: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I know Apoorv, you know, when we get to those discussions about how everybody else is doing and the different technologies, with his level of expertise, he clearly understands what each of the other entries, what their base case is and has, I think, you know, probably one of the frustrations is maybe that some are maybe not up to the standard that they maybe should be for this type of a competition. So, there's other things involved to get qualified and that sort of thing, which we don't need to get into. But that would probably be a bit of a pet peeve. But yeah, overall, it's a pretty competitive environment right now, yeah.
Leighton: OK, so some of the other ideas that have come up in the competition, in the semi-finals and now the finals include turning GHG emissions into fish food, concrete and bioplastics. Is there one idea outside of your own that's, you know, really caught your eye, something that's really cool?
Greg: That would probably be more of a question for Apoorv. I know we've gone through things. I know we tend to look at the others and compare what they're doing against what we're doing. And I still believe from my layman's perspective that our particular technology has the potential for the biggest immediate impact of any of the finalists that are going right now. I think there's some interesting ones that are very early stage, laboratory stage right now, that down the road, you know, maybe five or 10 years down the road may have a pretty significant impact globally. But, yeah, at this point in time, you know, I probably couldn't comment on if there was anyone that sort-of would stand out.
Leighton: So, what would winning the prize mean to you and your team? Kind-of an obvious question.
Greg: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, for sure. Yeah. Well, besides the monetary win, I think for a group this young that we have, who really this is for most of them, this is kind-of their first real job, their first real position and to kind-of be all in like they have, that a win would sort-of be that validation that it wasn't all, you know, just some business model. It was recognized on a global level as a global achievement. And I think initially that's going to be, it'll be, just the fact that we won. And, you know, there's a monetary reward, but I think for all of those guys, regardless of where they go with their careers and, you know, we certainly plan on keeping this team together and growing this into a commercial business, but I think that they'll sort-of look back on this as a major, major achievement. And it'll you know, it'll affect all of these young guys, I think, going down the road as their careers progress.
Leighton: Yeah, so, I mean, even if you don't win, it sounds like there's been huge benefits already.
Leighton: And I mean, it's really paved -- correct me if I'm wrong -- a path to move forward anyway.
Greg: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's one good thing about this business, our project, is that when we first started it, when it was basically just Apoorv kind-of pitching this idea, is we vetted it with a legitimate business model -- where do we see this going? Where can we actually generate a revenue that will make a profitable company? So, we're I mean, we're at that point already, our business model is such that even with this, even though we call this our pilot reactor, this will generate revenue for us going forward. It may not be profitable, but it's that template now to basically invite the world in and say, ‘here it is. We've done this with this small group and it's definitely scalable.’ And we've got a rock-solid financial model that kind-of shows that this can be profitable for a power plant to build their own unit type of thing. So, yeah. That's kind of the next step. Yeah, definitely, I think that we are very positive that regardless of the outcome of the XPRIZE, this is a viable business.
Leighton: Now, now that we're in a final phase, you know, do you think this type of approach to solving big challenges can help move us to a future that is both energy abundant and low carbon?
Greg: Yeah, I think so. I think it's, this, it incentivizes the deep thinkers to, you know, go beyond just the initial test in the laboratory, writing a paper and then, you know, moving on with their next project. I think it's a great incentive, as we've seen already from other XPRIZEs. You know, SpaceX was a good example that, who would have thought that some independent contractor would have the spaceship going up and that short of a time, which just goes to show that, you know, that sort-of a capitalist mentality, which I'm a firm believer that there's validity to it. So, you know, definitely if XPRIZE asked us after this, we would definitely have some ideas as to how to tweak this to make it more effective to get to the end result, which is the solution and a viable solution. So, but yeah, definitely I like the platform and it certainly, it's moved our development along significantly versus what it might have been. And you know, I do have to add too, that we have had a lot of support from both the federal and provincial governments, funding support alongside of our own input. But really, without that, it would have been a real difficult run to achieve what these guys have achieved as fast as they have.
Leighton: OK. Anything else to add about the competition or your project?
Greg: I mean, we're just excited about it. And, you know, we're very thankful to the industry in Calgary that's supported us. We've, you know, we've kind-of pitched our idea and we've gotten, you know, companies like BURNCO on side who have committed to offtake of any product that we produce. So, you know, it's created this mini-commercial market for us. So other, you know, U of C has been quite helpful for us. We've had some grant funding there. But we've been able to utilize not only their expertise, but their equipment for testing. So, you know, we've kind-of, a bit at the start ragtag this thing, but we've utilized resources outside of our own company very effectively. So, basically at a minimal cost because we utilize them only when we need them versus having, you know, the expense of building our own lab and that type of thing. So, yeah, really as we look back on it, I think we're very pleased with, you know, the approach that we've taken. And despite the hiccups, it's progressing well, I think.
Leighton: OK, great. Well good luck and thanks for being on Energy Examined.
Greg: Yeah. Thanks!