How this Calgary company uses captured CO2 emissions to make stronger concrete
Carbon capture and utilization seen as one way to tackle climate crisis but not a 'silver bullet'
A Calgary startup that uses carbon dioxide emissions to create an additive that makes concrete stronger is looking to expand its role in Canada's growing carbon-capture industry, although not everyone agrees the technology is the best way to combat climate change.
Carbon capture technology recycles or stores CO2 from high-emitting sources to reduce the amount of emissions entering the atmosphere.
Canada is considered a global leader in carbon capture, and Alberta aims to become a hub for the industry within the country, but critics argue the resources being invested would be better spent elsewhere.
Carbon Upcycling Technologies is one of the smaller firms looking to expand into the carbon-capture field. The company uses some of the carbon emissions produced by a natural gas power plant in southeast Calgary to produce an additive that makes concrete more durable.
"We put the CO2 and powder feedstock into our reactor that's pressurized with CO2. It spins and then, at the end, you have a product that has carbon dioxide captured in the product," said Natalie Giglio, a business associate with Carbon Upcycling Technologies.
The company has different types of additives that can also be used in the production of plastics and consumer products such as soaps and crayons. These consumer goods are sold in an online marketplace the company also owns.
Madison Savilow, the company's chief of staff, says its concrete additive is different from others on the market and allows concrete manufacturers to save up to five per cent on their production costs by reducing their cement use.
CBC News has not independently verified that claim.
When the company first started, it had a reactor about the size of a cookie jar that could hold about five grams of material per batch.
Four years later, the three- to four-hour process produces 22 tonnes of concrete additive per batch, two tonnes of which is CO2 that has been permanently sequestered in the material, Giglio said.
"Our 2050 goal is taking 500 million tonnes of CO2 and putting that into concrete and plastics and consumer products," she said.
Canada's carbon-capture projects
Canada has become a global leader in carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS).
There are four major Canadian carbon capture projects in operation, three of which are in Alberta, and others are in development.
A recent report from international energy research firm Wood Mackenzie says two of the major facilities — Shell Quest in Alberta and the Boundary Dam coal power plant in Saskatchewan — have captured nine million tonnes of CO2.
"If all proposed projects come online, Canada will increase its total CCUS capacity by over 500 per cent to 115 (million tonnes per annum)," the report says.
Shell Quest cost $1.3 billion to build, and it received $745 million from the Alberta government. The Boundary Dam carbon capture project cost $1.5 billion and received $240 million from the federal government.
Shell Quest stores the CO2 in deep saline aquifers. The Boundary Dam stores the carbon underground and repurposes the carbon to extract more oil, as do the other two major projects in Canada.
Carbon Upcycling Technologies is a much smaller enterprise based at the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre. The company is not paid by the natural gas plant to process its CO2 emissions.
'Not a silver bullet'
Canada, along with over 120 countries, has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 as part of its effort to tackle climate change.
Some see carbon-capture technology as a path toward that goal, but the topic is divisive.
"Carbon capture is one of the critical tools in our toolbox, and it is necessary for Canada and the world to achieve our climate targets — but it is not the only one," said Nina Lothian, director of the fossil fuel program at the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank.
"More urgent is the need to increase our energy efficiency, reduce consumption of fossil fuels, produce more renewable electricity, and move forward more quickly on electrification. We need all those things happening at once."
Savilow of Carbon Upcycling Technologies agrees.
"Carbon capture and utilization is not a silver bullet," she said. "It's not like we want to go at this alone."
Lothian also noted there are limits to the amount of carbon dioxide the technology can capture.
"In oil and gas, 70 to 80 per cent of the emissions come from the combustion of fossil fuel, and so carbon capture is not going to address those emissions," she said.
Others see investments in carbon-capture technology as effectively prolonging the world's reliance on fossil fuel and taking resources away from alternatives that hold more promise in actually addressing climate change.
Hidden costs, critic says
Carroll Muffett, the chief executive at the non-profit Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C., says there are hidden environmental costs to carbon capture and storage.
"Eighty per cent of all of the [carbon capture and storage] projects worldwide involve using captured CO2 for the production of new oil, which would then itself be admitted into the atmosphere," he said.
Muffett says that infusing CO2 into cement also takes energy, which can reduce the net benefit in terms of overall emissions.
"If you have equipment that is burning fossil fuels to embed a small amount of carbon in a massive amount of cement, making that add up to a benefit for the climate is extremely difficult," he said.
Savilow said the process of infusing CO2 into the additive doesn't involve separating the carbon and oxygen, reducing the energy requirements.
"We don't split the CO2 molecule, we sequester the entire CO2 molecule. On a clean grid, we're carbon negative," she said.
Carbon Upcycling Technologies also says its product reduces the amount of cement used.
"In a lot of cases, we're able to reduce the carbon footprint of products, not necessarily because of the CO2 that's embedded into our additive, but actually because it's replacing the carbon-intensive additives that are already being used," Savilow said
The technology has also been criticized for not being economically viable, but Carbon Upcycling Technologies says it has found workarounds.
"Our process is a lot cheaper than others because we're using waste materials, both in our solid feedstock as well as in our gaseous feedstock," said Savilow.
Earlier this month, building materials giant Lafarge Canada expressed interest in using the Carbon Upcycling Technologies additive in concrete manufacturing.
The two companies signed a memorandum of understanding on July 6.
Shell Canada also announced earlier this month that it is planning to open a new carbon capture and storage facility in Alberta.
With files from Monty Kruger