From C02 to super material: Edmonton power company gets into nanotube business

They can't be seen by the human eye, they’re the strongest material known to man and they’re created seemingly out of thin air. They’re called carbon nanotubes, and an Edmonton-based power producer plans to be the first in the world to begin producing them on a commercial scale.

Capital Power gearing up to be world leader in carbon nanotube production on a commercial scale

Capital Power plans to turn its Genesee Generation Station, located 70 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, into a facility that produces carbon nanotubes from the CO2 in its emissions. (Supplied by Capital Power)

They can't be seen by the human eye, they're the strongest material known to man and they're created seemingly out of thin air.  

They're called carbon nanotubes, and an Edmonton-based power producer plans to begin producing them on a commercial scale, using an innovative technology that will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from one of its electricity generating plants.

"Carbon nanotubes are actually the strongest material ever measured by man," Brian Vaasjo, Capital Power's president and CEO, told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Friday. "It's 40 times stronger than steel, lighter than aluminum and it's got great electronics attributes as well.

"There's a quite a number of uses for carbon nanotubes — everything from utilization in medicine to an additive material, to things like cement, steel, aluminum, to electronics. They've got great capability in terms of storing energy from a battery perspective. So it's actually a super material."  

Capital Power announced this week that it intends to build what it calls the world's first commercial-scale carbon nanotube production facility at its Genesee Generating Station, about 70 kilometres southwest of Edmonton.

Vaasjo used a cement analogy to explain the value of the carbon nanotube.

"If you took a 3,000 tonne block of cement, you could replace it with a 2,000 tonne block with only one tonne of carbon nanotubes," he said. "In other words, one tonne of carbon nanotubes displaces 1,000 tonnes of cement. So it's got huge properties from that perspective." 

Calgary company C2CNT is developing an innovative technology to create carbon nanotubes from the carbon dioxide in power plant emissions. Carbon nanotube research has explored a variety of uses, such as building them into elastic sheets that conduct electricity. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP via Getty Images)

The technology is being developed by Calgary-based C2CNT, a company that is currently among the five finalists in a global competition seeking new technologies to convert CO2 emissions into useful products.

Vaasjo described the company's electrolysis process as genius and deceptively simple. It involves "bubbling" the flue gas through a medium, then using electrolysis to remove the carbon and split the CO2 into carbon nanotubes and oxygen.

The process has been developed by Stuart Licht, C2CNT's founder and a chemistry professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. It's already proving to be successful in ongoing tests at the company's Shepard Energy Centre in Calgary.

"They're actually producing carbon nanotubes today, on a developmental ramping-up stage of the development of the technology," Vaasjo said. "We're producing carbon nanotubes in Alberta already."

Capital Power, an investor in C2CNT, will need to spend up to $25 million retrofitting the Genesee plant in order to get the carbon nanotube production facility operational by 2021.

Vaasjo said the initial plan is to produce about 2,500 tonnes per year of nanotubes, which will use about 10,000 tonnes of carbon from the plant. The plan will eventually build up to producing 7,500 tonnes of carbon nanotubes per year.

"It's got amazing environmental benefits in addition to its physical properties," he said. "It'll be taking carbon that otherwise would be going into the atmosphere and and otherwise turning it into a useful product."