Renewables like wind and solar energy are often portrayed as opposites to fossil fuels. Now, however, a team of university researchers from Toronto are bringing together renewable electricity and oil and gas in a way that could potentially reduce or even eliminate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil-fuel based industrial processes.
It’s a radical idea, and one that could solve a lot of problems. If successful, it would help reduce global GHG emissions while creating valuable products through a process called carbon conversion.
Team CERT (CERT stands for Carbon Electrocatalytic Recycling Toronto) is a team of more than 15 scientists in fields ranging from chemistry and physics to engineering. They’re from the University of Toronto and they’ve already established themselves as a leader in cutting-edge solar-cell technologies. Recently CERT turned their collective brainpower to carbon conversion using an approach called electrocatalysis.
“Basically, what we’re doing is we’re taking CO2, and adding renewable electricity as an input, along with water. We are using a process similar to one that splits water to produce hydrogen.” says Phil De Luna, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Toronto, and member of Team CERT. “We’re actually splitting CO2 and producing new carbon products.”
New carbon products could range from fuels to plastics, explains De Luna. He notes that a key to their approach is the use of new, high-efficiency catalysts (special substances that help trigger chemical reactions) developed by CERT. These catalysts make the entire process very energy efficient—a key factor in keeping the costs of carbon conversion low enough so it can become widely used.
Another key factor is scalability. So far, CERT’s approach has been proven in a lab; but will it work in a larger, real-world industrial setting?
De Luna believes it can, and the world is about to find out. CERT is one of ten teams of finalists in the US$20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition. The prestigious international competition is supported by Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), an alliance of oil sands producers committed to driving innovation to create a lower-carbon, more energy abundant future, and NRG a major power producer in the U.S.
Over the next year and a half, Carbon XPRIZE finalists will have a chance to prove that their technologies can work at industrial-scale test facilities. CERT will be among five finalists testing their approach the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre (ACCTC) located next to a working natural gas power plant in Calgary, Canada.
De Luna is proud to be one of four teams from Canada who have made it to the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE finals, and for the opportunity to test their approach at the ACCTC.
“We are a country that takes climate change seriously,” he says. “There are very few countries in the world that have this level of commitment to reducing emissions, and that’s why we believe that our technology has a chance to blossom here.”