Ingenuity Lab looks to transform carbon into useful substances

Canada is showing the rest of the world the way forward in terms of carbon transformation. One firm in particular, Ingenuity Lab, is turning threat into opportunity through technology

  • Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

Ingenuity Lab's approach to carbon looks to turn a threat into an opportunity

A great deal has been said about Canada’s change of direction since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took charge last year, and nowhere is this volte-face more apparent than on the hot-button topic of climate change. While some way short of the all-out U-turn predicted by some of the more hopeful commentators, the decision to double down on climate mitigation is part and parcel of the ruling party’s plans to shake Canada’s reputation as a producer of dirty fuel and a notoriously slow mover. When, in the dying months of last year, Trudeau outlined his plans for a national framework to slash emissions and, in March, all 13 provincial and territorial premiers agreed to some form of carbon pricing, it could no longer be said that Canada was standing in the way of real and progressive action on climate change.

Far from being the only country to ramp up the rhetoric since COP21, Canada is in many ways representative of the transformative effect last year’s Paris meeting has had on the world economy. A little over six months on from when the landmark agreement was struck, it’s clear that more countries than ever before are taking a proactive approach to climate change. Innovative technology is one thing, but a willingness to pursue broad-based and sustainable gains has made all the difference between the worlds of pre and post-COP21.

Arise, Alberta
The western Canadian province of Alberta is home to some of the most impressive advances on the climate front, and promises to play a key part in reshaping not just the country’s, but the world’s, energy strategy. Ehsan Jenab, Project Lead at Alberta-based Ingenuity Lab, described the province as the country’s “energy powerhouse” and believes it will be instrumental in the all-important issue of carbon transformation.

Each year, according to Jenab, Alberta generates billions of dollars in revenue through extracting and marketing its abundant natural resources to consumers around the world. Looking at the last 20 years, Alberta has ranked consistently among the top 10 energy producers in the world and has led in terms of average annual economic growth. “However, with energy demands expected to rise by 35 percent, not only do we require an increasingly diverse energy supply base, we also need to manage our collective output of emissions more effectively”, said Jenab.

Ingenuity Lab is a funded research and development initiative at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Engineering, in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, and Director Carlo Montemagno is a tenured professor in that department. Widely regarded as a change agent in enabling the world’s foremost researchers and innovators, the institute uses unique governance and operational structures to create an enabling interdisciplinary environment, sustain effective partnerships, and create unsurpassed knowledge and technology transfers. “To this end, it provides an ideal vehicle through which we can partner and develop business relationships with industry, to put Alberta at the forefront of greenhouse gas (GHG) technology development and deployment.”

Our global population is growing, and so too are our demands for energy, which are expected to increase another 35 percent by the year 2035. In order to address the twin issues of spiralling demand and rising emissions, we must not only create a diverse energy supply base, but also manage our collective output more effectively, according to Jenab.

Ingenuity Lab
The research body’s multi-enzyme platform, which is based on Montemagno’s award-winning work, generates valuable, organic molecules from CO2, produced by industrial processes, sunlight, water and electricity. Essentially, the solution facilitates photosynthesis without the energy requirements found in traditional biological carbon fixation platforms, and, as Jenab explained, “the process is designed as a cascade of bioreactors, which allow for optimised reaction conditions for each stage of the process”.

Our global population is growing, and so too are our demands for energy, which are expected to increase another 35 percent by the year 2035

The technology is particularly pertinent for Canada and its revised commitment to climate change, given that 90 percent of the country’s emissions are derived from the energy sector. Ingenuity Lab, therefore, is an important piece of the puzzle, and the research institution has unearthed findings that promise to transform the province’s signature natural resource industry. For one, CO2 from industrial flue gas emissions can now be captured using sunlight by mimicking plant photosynthetic processes on a large scale, to be transformed into valuable chemical compounds and marketable products.

“This technology not only provides the opportunity to build on this success”, said Jenab. “It promises unconventional discoveries that may well prove to be cornerstones of Alberta’s future energy industry. By transforming carbon emissions into marketable products, our main emission will be value.” Assuming there is a one percent increase in the technology’s adoption per year, it follows that, at the end of the 10-year period, the average of the combined emissions for all industries will be reduced at a rate 10.8 tons per year.

Cases like Alberta are indicative of a wider shift, not just in technology but also in the way in which we as a population perceive carbon emissions. Ingenuity Lab’s work in particular is proof that we need not necessarily see carbon as a threat, and advances in the field of carbon transformation could hold the key to converting carbon into valuable products and, in a broader sense, realising the broad-based and sustainable gains set out in Paris.

Looking at Canada in isolation, however, makes it appear as though COP21 has radically reshaped the landscape for action on climate change, where the truth is that it has less to do with any promises made in Paris, rather, it is a combination of factors resulting in an all-round increased willingness to change. This was an international agreement that stopped short of the scope envisaged by many of the meeting’s more optimistic attendants, and ultimately, the responsibility rests with political, corporate and academic leaders to drive real and meaningful change going forwards.

Corporate cooperation
Businesses, in particular, are beginning to recognise what’s being asked of them, and Frances Way, COO at CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), said in an interview with World Finance that climate change is not just a physical and regulatory threat, but a significant business opportunity. In 2012, for example, the low-carbon economy was valued at $5.5trn, and has grown at a rate of over three percent a year since then.

What’s more, initiatives such as the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, or BICEP, have seen over 1,000 companies – Apple, Intel, GM, Nike and Unilever among them – sign up to a ‘coordinated effort to combat climate change’, while the We Mean Business coalition includes over 300 companies and investors committed to reducing their carbon footprints.

“After decades of debate, the scientific community is agreed on the science that shows that human activity is causing dangerous climate change”, said Way. “Just as importantly, this is now an established fact for leading businesses who understand that there is no greater threat to the global economy than climate change.”

Risks abound for companies that choose not to rethink their assumptions about ‘business as usual’. Whereas in years past the responsibility fell on governments, communities and the third sector to shoulder these costs of climate change, multinationals can ill afford to ignore the issues anymore if they’re to survive.

“More and more companies are understanding that it is in their own business interest to take action to address climate change. CDP’s 2015 climate change report reveals that, compared to 2010, when just under half of companies said they had activities in place to reduce emissions, now nine in 10 engage in these activities”, said Way. “We see that corporations are clearly shifting their strategies to become part of the solution to the climate challenge. The momentous and global nature of climate change means that, ultimately, we need everyone on board to take action.”

This increased awareness is essential if the work being carried out by research institutions like Ingenuity Lab is to receive the support and funding it so sorely needs. And, while increased willingness is an important piece of the puzzle, it’s unlikely to come to much without technological solutions to speed its advance. On the issue of climate change, business and scientific interests have aligned, and real and meaningful changes, such as those in the case of Ingenuity Lab, are beginning to take hold.

Mixed approach
The energy sector is one area in which scientific research is finding more practical uses, as opposed to merely theoretical ones. For one, the ability to convert CO2 into value-added chemicals could revolutionise the energy landscape, not just in Canada, but across the globe. And, assuming research firms like Ingenuity Lab can scale up these technologies and put them to commercial use, developments, particularly in the field of carbon transformation, could create thousands of jobs and clamp down on the issue of wayward emissions.

A great many administrations, post-COP21, have already opted to double down on their efforts to reduce emissions, and, in countries where pollution is posing a considerable threat to public health, carbon transformation and carbon capture could have an important part to play in securing a more prosperous future. In China, for example, the ability to not only capture carbon, but market it as valuable products, represents the next logical step from the country’s existing investment in carbon capture and storage (CCS); it could not only spare its people considerable harm, but also go some way towards attracting considerable wealth.

Carbon capture technology is capital-intensive and asks a great deal in terms of operational costs, but it remains one of the surest methods of reducing industrial emissions. Incremental cuts are all well and good, but only through carbon disposal and transformation technologies can heavy emitters make the requisite reductions. The process of carbon disposal, which consists chiefly of burying CO2 in the ground, has for years been included on emissions reduction strategies across the globe. However, it has often been the first in the firing line when funding has come up short – as was the case in November of last year, when the UK axed £1bn in funds ringfenced for the commercialisation of CCS.

An optimistic International Energy Agency said in 2012 that technology could account for nearly 20 percent of the emissions reductions required to cut GHG emissions in half by 2050, only for project overruns and runaway costs to destroy any initial promises. Speaking to The New Economy about whether CCS has indeed failed to make good on its promise, Paul Fennell, a reader in clean energy at Imperial College London, gave a resounding “no”. He elaborated: “[The technology] works as well as anyone could hope – it is fairly basic engineering. What has failed has been global appetite to do anything about climate change.”

Proponents of the technology, including Fennell, argue governments are wrong to discriminate against CCS on the basis that higher emissions in the future will make investment in CCS all the more expensive further down the line. Speaking to The Guardian about the UK Government’s decision not to invest in CCS, Myles Allen, Professor of Climate Dynamics at Oxford University, said: “Saying that we should not [invest in this technology] because it is expensive and hard, when we know we are going to need it, is just daft.”

Assuming the political landscape stays the same, new technologies in carbon disposal could face yet more of the same obstacles, as governments choose not to front the costs in favour of more incremental mitigation strategies. And while, on the surface, any new carbon transformation technology could be set to suffer the same fate, the important issue of political willpower – or lack thereof – has improved since the Paris meeting. Carbon transformation, therefore, could find a place in the hearts and minds of politicians and businesses keen to do their bit for the climate.

With the pressure to pay heed to the issue of climate change greater than ever, new entries to the mainstream climate debate, such as carbon transformation, are likely to be received warmly by political and business leaders alike. Far from being exclusive to Alberta or indeed Canada, the contributions of Ingenuity Lab are indicative of a new post-COP21 world, in which action on climate change is the expectation, as opposed to the exception.