Business

Meet the startup turning CO2 emissions into handcrafted soap

CleanO2 has developed a technology to turn CO2 emissions from industrial furnaces and boilers into potash for use in soaps, detergents, the agricultural sector and the pharmaceutical industry, among others.

New system aims to reduce energy costs and capture greenhouse gas emissions

Jaeson Cardiff is the founder of CleanO2, which captures carbon dioxide emissions for use in products like soap. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

For the last four months, Jill Hawker has experimented with mixing potash into her line of handmade soaps.

She's testing out how much of the material she can mix into her existing soap-making recipe and how the finished product stands up.

"So far, so good," said Hawker, the owner of All Things Jill. "We haven't had any issues with it at all. It's a really functioning bar of soap."

Some of the soap produced using potash at All Things Jill. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Hawker hadn't envisioned using potash in her products, but she's excited about how she's playing a part in capturing carbon dioxide emissions.

All of the potash comes from CleanO2, a Calgary startup that is gaining the attention of prominent business leaders and has substantial growth plans in Canada and abroad.

CleanO2 has developed the technology to turn CO2 emissions from industrial furnaces and boilers into potash for use in soaps, detergents, the agricultural sector, and the pharmaceutical industry, among others, using a device called CARBiNX.

There are a number of different types of potash — a kind of potassium-rich salt — including the material produced from mines in Saskatchewan, and the byproduct of this new carbon capture process.

Founder Jaeson Cardiff was working as a plumber in 2005 when came up with the idea. Since then, he's worked to refine the chemistry and grow the business to sell his CARBiNX units, which are about the size of two refrigerators  

A CARBiNX unit is installed at ATCO's Whitehorn facility in northeast Calgary. The unit is about the size of two refrigerators. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Other companies are developing techniques to use carbon in plastics, adhesives, cement and concrete, among many others. 

Of course, the products are not a cure-all for climate change, but they'll help decrease the amount of CO2 emissions released into the air.

"If you want to use natural gas for heat or for your building, you need a device to reduce the emissions associated with that energy source. This is a very easy means of achieving that," said Cardiff.

After about two weeks, the chemical is all used up and the potash can be removed. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Canadian Natural Resources is the largest oil and gas producer in Canada and the biggest player in carbon capture and storage, where emissions are traditionally collected and pumped underground.

However, the company's executive vice-chairman is more excited about putting that carbon to use.

"CO2 is carbon and oxygen. These are not scary molecules. They aren't radioactive or anything like that," said Steve Laut, in an interview.

No wonder he likes to reference CleanO2 when he discusses greenhouse gas emissions in speeches and interviews.

"There are all kinds of innovative ways out there that use chemistry to actually make [CO2] into a product, which would be great because then you're actually reducing emissions and getting products out of it as well."

A handful of potash taken from the CARBiNX unit. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

So far, CleanO2​​​​​​​ has installed 14 of its CARBiNX units in Alberta and B.C. in a variety of facilities including a school, housing complex, industrial facility and a power plant.

"We expect to sequester five to six tonnes annually of carbon dioxide," said Gregory Caldwell, with ATCO, a natural gas utility which has one of the CARBiNX units at its building in northeast Calgary.

As the world increasingly focuses on reducing greenhouse gases, there is pressure to cut fossil fuel use. However, many natural gas companies are looking for innovations that reduce their emissions, to ensure the gas is used for decades to come. 

"We see a future for natural gas being a part of low-carbon buildings and a low-carbon future. If we use technology like this, in addition to that fuel, we can really continue to reduce emissions but also keep costs reasonable for consumers," said Caldwell.

The units work by capturing CO2 emissions and absorbing them with a chemical, which is a type of hydroxide. The units produce potash, which is sold and the profit is shared between CleanO2​​​​​​​ and the owner of the unit. CleanO2​​​​​​​ estimates the CARBiNX units should pay for themselves in four or five years.

The units also reduce a facilities energy costs since they produce heat from the warmth of the emissions and the chemical reaction. The heat can pre-warm water before it enters a boiler, for instance.

"Regardless of your position on carbon emissions, I think everybody can agree on saving money and making some cash," said Cardiff.

ATCO says CleanO2 units are an affordable way to reduce the emissions from natural gas use. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

In the last week, CleanO2​​​​​​​ signed an agreement with Tundra Processing Systems to market and service its CARBiNX systems. Tundra sells and services industrial equipment across Western Canada.

The deal is why Cardiff is anticipating significant expansion. He expects upwards of 40 units to be operating by the end of this year and more than one thousand by the end of 2020. He's already envisioning global expansion, too.

"Think about the number of buildings that have heating appliances in them. It's pretty massive," said Cardiff. "We've had conversations with folks from Japan, as well as from Ireland. I have a meeting tomorrow with folks from Spain. It's gaining momentum rather quickly."

All of that growth will likely translate into a massive amount of potash. Edmonton-based cleaning products company Ostrem Chemical Co. already uses the potash from CleanO2​​​​​​​ in some of its products, while the the Lush Cosmetics chain has a installed a CARBiNX​​​​​​​ unit and is testing out the material in its products.

Potassium hydroxide is currently used as the chemical inside the CARBiNX units. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

In Calgary, Hawker is still fine-tuning her carbon-infused soaps before putting them on store shelves.

"I love what CleanO2​​​​​​​ is doing as far as the carbon capture technology. I think supporting that might be of interest to customers," she said.

As CleanO2​​​​​​​ expands, she's excited to see where this new product stream will go.

"They certainly produce a lot of potash, so there's lots of soap to be made."

About the Author

Kyle Bakx

Reporter

Kyle Bakx is a Calgary-based journalist with CBC's network business unit. He's covered stories across the country and internationally.

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