Forget carbon capture and storage. Carbon marketing is the future

“[CCS is] pure expense and provides no additional utility.” - Carlo Montemagno

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February 18, 2014

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In 2008, the Alberta government established a $2-billion fund for carbon capture and storage projects and, to date, the fund has shown little progress in lowering Alberta’s carbon emissions.

In April 2012, three Albertan corporations canceled a $1.4- billion joint-venture CCS project, perhaps demonstrating to the wider industry that it’s more cost-effective to pay carbon penalties than actually reduce emissions. TransAlta Corp., Enbridge Inc. and Capital Power Corp. determined their collective CCS project was too expensive to justify the cost, even though the provincial and federal governments kicked in $778.8 million. Less than a year later, in February 2013, the government of Alberta canceled $285 million in funding for a CCS project at the proposed Swan Hills gas plant immediately north of Edmonton.

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Carlo Montemagno’s next step is to take the carbon manipulation system he designed in a lab and put it to work in the field.
Photograph Ryan Girard

The problem with carbon capture and storage, University of Alberta professor Carlo Montemagno says, is that “It’s pure expense and provides no additional utility.” Montemagno and his team of 35 people at the Edmonton-based Ingenuity Lab have designed a system that captures carbon emissions and then alters the molecules, turning carbon dioxide into long-chain hydrocarbons and specialty chemicals. “You take a flue gas, which is emitting CO2, and you convert that flue gas into valuable chemicals right on site,” he says. “So you eliminate the emissions and you make money, and you create new businesses.” The idea, he says, is to take smokestack emissions and turn them into products that have market value.

Rather than capturing carbon and then sequestering it underground, Montemagno is using a combination of nanotechnology and bioengineering to capture carbon, manipulate it and then sell it to petrochemical producers like Dow Chemicals or Nova Chemicals. Montemagno says the process has been successful in the laboratory and the team is working to get a pilot project tested in the field, which he expects will happen next year.

“What you’re doing is you’re creating an economic opportunity and at the same time you’re dealing with a significant societal challenge.”

The University of Alberta recruited Montemagno, who has won the Feynman Prize for his work in experimental nanotechnology in 2012 from his post as the founding dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. In addition to his role as scientific director of the Alberta Nanotechnology Accelerator and as program lead of biomaterials at the National Institute for Nanotechnology, Montemagno is a fellow of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, the American Academy of Nanomedicine and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. He is also the director of Ingenuity Lab, which functions like a technology accelerator, and from which he is overseeing research on CO2 conversion.

Ingenuity Lab is a joint partnership between the U of A’s Faculty of Engineering and the National Research Council’s National Institute for Nanotechnology, and is supported by $36.8 million in funding from Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures. The purpose of Ingenuity Lab is to develop new technologies that are of interest to the wider industry and then bring these technologies into the marketplace, much the same way that the U of A incubated, then incorporated, Cold-fX maker Afexa Life Sciences. Montemagno expects that within a year, Ingenuity Lab will have a prototype of its technology “that will fit within the bed of a pickup truck” ready for field testing.

For its part, the National Research Council has supported several projects aimed at turning carbon dioxide emissions into valuable products, including a $19-million grant for the construction of an algae-based carbon conversion project at a Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. site in northeastern Alberta. The algae-based carbon capture system, developed by Pond Biofuels Inc., uses flue-gas emissions to grow algae. Both the algae-based system and the Ingenuity Lab system are designed to use any flue-gas emissions, including emissions at in situ oil sands operations, coal power plants and refineries.

At present, Montemagno says companies like Dow Chemicals and Nova Chemicals buy long-chain hydrocarbons from refineries that are byproducts of refining crude oil. His process, however, will eventually allow petrochemical companies to buy these specialty chemicals directly from Canadian production companies. “What you’re doing is you’re creating an economic opportunity and at the same time you’re dealing with a significant societal challenge,” he says.

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