Like magic, converting CO2 to carbon fibre materials we use in everyday life.
Updated: Aug 26, 2020
Interview with Mina Zarabian CEO of Carbonova.
The technology that is being taken to the commercial stage by Calgary-based Carbonova Corp. sounds almost too good to be true, but companies in the concrete-production, auto parts, sports equipment and other sectors that are working with the firm to use the carbon dioxide-sourced material it produces have tested it, and they know is true.
“We see this technology as ultimately being a large job creator,” said Carbonova CEO Mina Zarabian. “We see it as helping to create hundreds of jobs and ultimately, thousands of jobs as the whole value chain is developed.”
Zarabian, who is originally from Iran and moved to Alberta in 2013, where she earned a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Calgary (U of C), developed the Carbonova technology, along with co-inventor Dr. Pedro Pereira-Almao, a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the U of C and her co-supervisor, while she was PhD researcher in the Schulich School of Engineering at the university.
The breakthrough technology is based on carbon-conversion technology utilizing greenhouse gases, with natural gas being a key part of that conversion.
“We started to study the conversion of CO2 into value-added products in 2016,” she says. “The path we took for CO2 capture and utilization is totally different than what had been tried previously.”
For the most part, other approaches have been aimed at capturing and sequestering CO2.
For example, former U of C professor David Keith, now at Harvard University, has developed one of the most well publicized approaches, in the form of a firm called Carbon Engineering.
There are similar air-capture approaches being developed.
The Carbonova approach is much different, with it being based on utilizing CO2 that has already been captured in Alberta and transforming it into a usable, lightweight and resilient ingredient in many products.
There are a growing number of CO2 sources. For example, the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line, which went into operation earlier this year and is designed to transport CO2 that has been captured by industrial plants in the Edmonton area (including the new Sturgeon Refinery), is one of the possible sources of that CO2, said Zarabian. There are other potential sources.
Natural gas, another key to the Carbonova technology, is also available in Alberta in abundance.
“This is a process that converts natural gas and CO2 into solid carbon nanofibres, that can then be used in a solid form for a lot of industries that can utilize the product,” says Zarabian.
Carbonova is partnering with NanosTech, a firm headed by Pereira-Almao which is working to commercialize several technologies developed at the U of C, based on catalytic nanoparticle technologies.
The promising Carbonova technology has received a good deal of publicity, including in a recent CBC report, and in the widely respected magazine The Economist and elsewhere.
In the case of the latter British-based magazine, the spin on the article was that the technology would help to redirect the economic effort of the province for the future and improve the image of “Alberta’s tar sands”, because this soon to be industry relies on the use of CO2 that is gathered from the burning of fossil fuels, turning it into “green money-makers”.
Zarabian says there’s no doubt in her mind about the money-making potential of the Carbonova approach. She sees the technology, which has won several technology awards and for which there have been patents registered and earned, being used in multiple applications.
Carbonova’s product could be used to reinforce concrete, just as cement is now used, but it is much lighter, helping to reduce the GHGs created in the concrete-producing process, which is one of the highest GHG emitters in the world.
There are many other applications. For example, the material could be used to replace metal parts in vehicles, greatly reducing the weight of those vehicles and helping to make them more fuel-efficient.
“It could play an important role in electric vehicles, to provide room for more batteries,” she says.
It could offer as much as a 30 per cent reduction in the weight of vehicles, she estimates.
The product could also be used to replace metal in bicycles and sports equipment, with many other uses beyond that. However, the benefits in CO2 reduction come into picture in use of carbon fibers and nano-fibres. When the body structure of a car is made 30% lighter using carbon fiber, 50 tons of CO2 will be reduced per 1 ton of carbon fiber over a life cycle of 10 years.
The largest competitor now for Carbonova’s lightweight material is carbon fibre, dominated by Japanese manufacturers. But it requires a huge amount of energy to produce carbon fibre, which, of course, leads to CO2 emissions.
Carbon fibers production is commonly performed through the spinning process, starting
from refining oil to obtain polyacrylonitrile (PAN). According to the information published by Toray (the largest producer of carbon fibers in the world) nearly 20 tons of CO2 are emitted to manufacture 1 ton of carbon fiber. (Toray, 2020),
“With our process, we utilize CO2 to produce our products and will have much less carbon footprint. About one-third of the cost of carbon fibre is the energy needed to produce it, and with our energy efficient catalytic process we cut the energy demand and consequently the price”
In the case of the value proposition for concrete, she says her firm’s nanofibres can not only replace cement to some extent, but help concrete manufacturers create “smart concrete”, with the potential to turn concrete into a product with electrical conductivity, allowing users to constantly monitor the loads on the concrete in structural components such as bridges or buildings, to ensure it remains resilient.
At this point the process has been proven in a lab setting. Lines from tanks of CO2 are fed into a small chamber the size of a 12 inches ruler. Once it is exposed to heat, thanks to the application of natural gas, a powdery residue appears. A metal, which she won’t identify, acts as a catalyst. She calls that metal “the secret sauce” in the process, but it is widely available.
Carbonova is now focused on “scaling up” its technology, she says.
“We are now building a pre-commercial unit, which will validate the technology for commercial use,” she says.
Carbonova has also recently entered into a strategic partnership with Kiwetinohk Resources Corp., an energy and technology development company co-founded and headed by Pat Carlson, the founder of natural gas producer Seven Generations. Kiwetinohk and Mr. Carlson’s team is assisting Carbonova in making introductions to industry experts and providing commercial planning assistance.
"Zarabian says the company is developing the pre-commercial unit, which will produce “a few kilograms daily” of the nanofibres.
The next phase is to move to building a full commercial unit, which could be built in a module size, making scale-up a transparent process.
She believes Alberta is an ideal location to develop the technology, given ready access to CO2, natural gas and engineering talent, which exists because of the need for many sophisticated engineers in the oil and gas sector.
There are now seven people working to develop the Carbonova process, but she says that will ramp up next year and dramatically once the commercial unit is developed.
“This is going to happen,” she says, exuding the confidence that has helped take the technology from a lab bench to likely commercial applications.