As we navigate a global pandemic and a just recovery, we want to amplify the stories of those who are working towards a low-carbon future, like CERT. To build a vibrant low-carbon economy, we’ll need innovative tech that supports our needs while preserving the environment. That’s why Bullfrog Power is sponsoring the Centre for Social Innovation’s Earth Tech, an accelerator for startups and nonprofits working on climate and freshwater solutions.
It’s no secret that the chemical and plastic industries are heavy polluters. They emit more than 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year—that’s as much as 385 coal-fired power plants. CERT, a carbontech startup and Earth Tech 2020 participant, has an ambitious goal to decarbonize these industries by converting carbon emissions into useful chemicals.
CERT’s pilot plant is operating at the Alberta Carbon Conservation Technology Centre in Calgary. Co-Founder Alex Ip shared how it works. “It’s basically on a plot of land next to a natural gas power plant,” Alex said. “We take some of the emissions from this plant and we turn it into chemicals like ethylene. And our process uses only electricity and water.”
You likely use a lot of ethylene, but you might not know it. Ethylene is a chemical building block that goes into the production of many plastics, textiles, cosmetics, and even parts for cars and electronics. Ethylene production is emissions intensive, but CERT doesn’t want to stop people from using these products—they want to make ethylene that’s carbon negative, reversing the chemical’s environmental impact.
“Currently, carbon dioxide is released when ethylene is made. But with our technology, the carbon is embedded in the final product,” Alex explained. “We can embed three tonnes of CO2 into each tonne of ethylene produced, which keeps that carbon out of the atmosphere.”
From conception to competition
The seed for CERT started in 2016, when Alex and a team of researchers at the University of Toronto were starting a research program looking to use electricity to turn CO2 into chemicals. Around the same time, the Carbon XPRIZE came on the scene. With a $20 million prize pool, this cleantech contest aims to inspire companies that convert CO2 into useable products.
Although they were just starting out, the team decided to throw their hat in the ring. “We were up against established companies with years of development under their belts, but we decided to challenge ourselves and see how far we could get,” Alex remembered. They were able to scale their technology much faster than they expected, and they ended up being one of only ten Carbon XPRIZE finalists. The prizewinner will be announced in mid-2021.
CERT Co-founder Christine Gabardo joined the effort in 2018 and led the pilot team operations in the final round. The team realized the commercial potential of the technology and spun-out CERT as a company in June 2019.
The CERT team learned a lot by putting their technology to the test in the real world. “Industrial production of chemicals is huge, so there are many thousands of multiples of scale up that need to be done to bridge the gap from lab research,” Alex said. “I think it’s been helpful for us to do that early on. It helps us find and address problems early, so we don’t get stuck years down the line.”
On the business side of things, Alex and Christine took full advantage of their participation in Earth Tech. “It really helped us to get into shape for finding partners and raising money, as well as developing some good branding and marketing awareness,” Alex said. “And more importantly, the program fostered a sense of community. The ventures were quite diverse in approach and scale, but everyone had a common goal of improving the world we live in.”
Creating a circular carbon economy
Alex believes that tech and innovation will be critically important to addressing climate change. “The status quo won’t do. We need a way to fundamentally transform the way we make, use, and recycle things, and we need to develop the technology to do it,” he said. “We certainly have lots of interesting new tech, but we also need to scale fast and policy needs to support the adoption of these technologies.”
Alex also noted that there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution to climate change. Many activities and industries contribute to carbon emissions, and we’ll need many new processes to address them.
For his part, he’s optimistic that CERT will be able to make the use of ethylene products circular. Currently, fossil fuels are extracted, used to make ethylene products, and then discarded. Often, this means the waste plastic is incinerated—producing more CO2 emissions. CERT hopes to close the loop by capturing that carbon dioxide and converting it into new ethylene that can be reused in new products.
“I want people to know that it’s possible to convert CO2 into something useful,” Alex said. “It may sound a bit like sci-fi, but the technology exists and it can be part of our path forward. I hope that people start looking for it in the things they use. Similar to looking for products made from plants or recycled plastic, consumers can demand that their products are made from recycled CO2.”
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