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Program ID: Innovation Anthology #853
Program Date: 03/14/2017
Program Category: Alberta, Awards and Competitions, Climate Change, Energy, Innovation

ERA Grand Challenge Round Two Winners Announced

PROGRAM 853        INTERVIEW WITH DR STEVE MACDONALD

March 14, 2017

MP3:   12.1 MB
TIME:  13:14 MINUTES 

Intro:  Steve MacDonald is the Chief Executive Officer of ERA, Emissions Reduction Alberta, previously known as the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation.  ERA has just announced the four winners in Round Two of its Grand Challenge.  Each recipient receives $3 million to invest in the development of new carbon conversion technology.

STEVE MACDONALD

CC:  STEVE, YOU'VE HAD A PRETTY EXCITING WEEK.  ON WEDNESDAY YOU ANNOUNCED FINALLY THE ROUND TWO WINNERS FOR THE GRAND CHALLENGE.  PERHAPS YOU COULD TELL ME FIRST OF ALL WHAT THE GRAND CHALLENGE ROUND TWO IS?

SM:  Sure, that would be my pleasure, Cheryl.  We decided it would be worthwhile to begin a search around the world actually for the best solutions for Alberta to convert carbon dioxide from the waste stream to an asset.  So basically use CO2 as a feedstock to make valuable products. We called that our Grand Challenge, given the complexities around such a conversion. 

And the goal is to find and accelerate the commercialization of CO2 as a feedstock, like I said, and reduce GHG emissions by one megatonne annually in Alberta--a very ambitious goal.  

In 2014 we committed funding to 24 projects.  We called that our Round One.  And those projects came from a field of over 340 submissions from 37 countries on six continents.  Each of our 24 winners received $500,000 and two years to advance their technologies. 

Now what we've done is move to Round Two of our competition.  We've selected four winners.  Three of them were actually Round One winners and then a new entry.  And each of these Round Two projects will receive up to $3 million to accelerate their technologies over the next two years.

The ultimate goal in 2019 is for one of these four projects to receive up to an additional $10 million in funding to help advance their technology further in Alberta and basically commercialize it right here in the province. 

CC:  WELL YOU SAY THAT THREE OF THE FOUR WINNERS ACTUALLY CAME THROUGH ROUND ONE.  WHAT DID YOU USE AS YOUR CRITERIA TO PICK THESE FOUR?  WHAT WERE YOU LOOKING FOR?

SM:  There's a whole range of variables that we looked at to select the winners. You know one of the key ones being the technology itself.  Is it proven?  Does it defy the laws of thermal dynamics or is it actually a legitimate technology that has significant promise.  

We also looked at the teams behind the projects.  What sort of expertise did they have to actually carry a project all the way through from idea to actually forming a company.  

We looked at the GHG impact, of course, because our core mandate within Emissions Reduction Alberta is to identify and accelerate technologies that reduce greenhouse gases; and allow Alberta to be successful in a low carbon future. 

We also looked at the non-GHG impacts.  A number of the projects actually have a significant benefit around water use, which was important. 

We looked at the financing plan.  The fact is that with most technologies it takes significant resources to see them all the way through to commercialization.  So did they have a financing plan to work all the way through? 

Their whole market opportunity, you know, we want to make sure we're developing solutions that actually the market demands.  It's not just a great idea, but there's no market pull for it.  So those are some of the key considerations we used. 

CC:  ARE YOU ALSO LOOKING THAT THEY ARE FAIRLY CLOSE TO COMMERCIALIZATION THEN? 

SM:  Absolutely.  The four projects are very different in terms of their stage of technology readiness.  Some are a little more early stage than the others. 

Again, the whole ultimate outcome is a commercialized product.  So, you're absolutely right, we've got to be clear there's a commercialization pathway that's achievable within the timelines that we've set up, which are very, very ambitious. 

CC:  SO COULD YOU NAME THE FOUR COMPANIES FOR ME PLEASE? 

SM:  Yes, it would be my pleasure.  The first one is Solidia Technologies.  They have an interesting technology that works in the concrete industry essentially, both on the production of the cement side and actually on the concrete side. 

And what their technology can do is actually reduce the carbon footprint of cement and concrete up to 70 percent.  Essentially it allows them to sequester CO2 within the cement and it reduces curing times and actually strengthens the product. 

And because of that, there's actually a reduction in the water consumption from 60 to 80 percent.  So that's a huge benefit too. 

The other good thing about Solidia is they paired with LaFarge, one of the major cement producers here in Alberta, to pilot test their technology.  They are also looking at the commercialization for precast products, such as pavers for the landscape market.  So that's a very interesting technology and its quite far advanced and we're very excited about the possibility there. 

Another winner was actually in the same area around concrete and it’s Carbon Cure Technologies.  And they've developed a process where they can essentially inject the CO2 in the curing process and sequester it in there.  And it too makes the concrete stronger and much less expensive to manufacture. 

Again another benefit from this technology is they are also looking at the way to reduce the use of water.  Concrete processing demands a lot of water, it can't be recycled but this technology will actually allow it to be recycled.  And again, the fact that they are able to make the concrete stronger, means when you're doing a pour, you have to use less of it, so again, it reduces overall emissions because of that you benefit from the water side.

CC:  SOLIDIA IT’S ACTUALLY AN AMERICAN COMPANY ISN’T IT?  IS CARBON CURE THE SAME? 

SM:  No.  Carbon Cure is a Nova Scotia based company.  They are partnering with an Alberta based, Burnco Rock Products.  Many of your listeners will be aware of that.  They’re a fourth generation Alberta family that has a significant presence here. 

Even though these companies are based outside of Alberta, what we've done with our money is attracted them here so they can focus specifically on Alberta industries and opportunities and advance the technology right here and see us benefit from the jobs and the supply chain development, the fabrication, and all of the pilots, the demonstration will be right here in Alberta too. 

CC:  NOW, THE THIRD COMPANY IS CALLED MANGROVE.  WHAT ARE THEY UP TO? 

SM:  So Mangrove Technology, the core of their technology is really a reactor that uses electricity to convert carbon dioxide and desalinate waste water.  What they do from that process is actually produce value added chemicals such as carbon salt or soda ash and hydrochloric acid.  And both these are products that are used in the oil and gas sector. 

What has been interesting for us about this project and the proposal they made to us is they are going to partner with an Alberta based company, Questor Technologies.  And what Questor will help them do is create the power.  And Questor does that through burning of waste gas.  And they will also be able to use the CO2 from that burning process.  So it's a partnership that's so natural.  The inputs are there and then you get the more positive by-products coming out of it. 

CC:  AND MCGILL UNIVERSITY? 

SM:  The fourth project is a very interesting project.  One of the realities around or challenges, I should say, around CO2 conversion is that it takes energy.  And that energy in the past typically came from hydrocarbon based fuels.  And so you have an emission problem trying to do the conversion. 

But the McGill project is looking at using solar power as the catalyst to convert CO2 emissions and the waste water again into valuable products for the petrochemical process.  So again, very much focused on the oil and gas sector but with applicability to any processes that use water essentially. 

What's interesting about their process is previous conversions like this took a number of steps in the process but their catalyst actually make it a one step.  So that will really improve the efficiencies. 

So the exciting piece is really that use of solar power--a renewable, zero emissions source of power to do this conversion. 

CC:  AND THAT WOULD ACTUALLY HAVE ALL KINDS OF APPLICATIONS IN OTHER INDUSTRIES, WOULDN'T IT?

SM:  Absolutely.  Part of their team includes a representative from the University of Alberta so we're excited about that too.

CC:  EACH OF THESE COMPANIES IS GETTING A NICE INJECTION OF CASH--$3 MILLION DOLLARS EACH.  WHERE DOES THE MONEY COME FROM? 

SM:  Great question.  So Emissions Reduction Alberta, our mandate is to focus on identifying and accelerating the technologies that allow Alberta to be successful in a lower carbon economy.  ERA received these grants transferred from the Government of Alberta.  And that funding comes from the fund that large final emitters choose to pay into as one compliant option to meet their emission reduction targets. 

CC:  SO WITH THE TIMELINE, HOW LONG DO THEY HAVE TO GET SOMETHING TO YOU?

SM:  They have another two years to demonstrate progress and achieve the outcomes that we’re funding.  In that progress one would be to further scale up the technologies, two demonstrate it works at higher volumes and be ready to commercialize.

So it's not just the technology itself.  Each of these players has to be looking at where the major markets are going to come from.  Do they have partners to help with the financing?  Are they putting in place the entire team they need to be successful?  So we're asking them to do a lot in this two year period.

CC:  NOW, IF WE COULD JUST LOOK BACK AT THE 24 ROUND ONE RECIPIENTS, THOSE WINNERS, THEY PUT IN AN AWFUL LOT OF WORK TOO.  SO HOW WOULD YOU ASSESS THE ROUND ONE WINNERS AND WHAT THEY HAVE ACCOMPLISHED SO FAR?

SM:  I would say that the vast majority of them moved forward.  There was some that in part of innovation is failing.  They found that their theory wasn't scaleable, and so they basically learned what didn't work.  And that will hopefully allow us to advance different technologies faster.

Like I said, three of these winners in Round Two are from that Round One.  So there's a whole range of learnings.  The one outcome we get from all of our projects that we fund is a report that is publicly shared.  So we’re learning that all 24 of those projects are now available to the world and all communities to build on and advance the technologies or take them in different directions. 

CC:  WHAT DO YOU SEE AS BEING THE IMPORTANCE TO ALBERTA'S ENVIRONMENTAL AND ECONOMIC OBJECTIVES WITH PROJECTS LIKE THIS? 

SM:  That's a good question, Cheryl.  Just to put the opportunity in perspective.  There's some work done by McKinsey on assessing what the potential for carbon based products is out there.  And their work suggests that market could be up to a trillion dollars.  That's with a "T" so an incredible opportunity for Alberta to be part of.

You know, building materials.  We talked about concrete, chemical products from methanol and syngas.  The fuels, methane or liquid fuels.  And even in the plastics industry.  So the size of the prize is immense.

In terms of the utilization, the potential out there could be up to 7 billion metric tonnes of CO2 being utilized.  Now that's the equivalent to approximately 15 percent of all the current annual global CO2 emissions. 

So for Alberta specifically, it does allow us to not only reduce CO2 emissions but to cut costs; reducing the amount of CO2 of course, and then also water.  As I mentioned, most of the technologies also have a huge benefit around water usage.  And water is expensive and managing waste water.

The new jobs--each of these industries will require all sorts of different pieces of the supply chain from fabrication of the new equipment required to do this. 

And then I think the other thing is that we’ll start to build a bit of an ecosystem that this is a growth area.  It will attract other smart people in this area.  And so it really will be a catalyst to develop the market place even further. 

And then, as I said earlier, the potential for not just Alberta but Canada and the world is just mind boggling. 

And these breakthrough technologies are important.  The majority of ERA's portfolio is focused on technologies essentially that reduce emissions, renewables, technologies that can replace some of the hydrocarbons.  This is the creative stuff.  So the idea of taking CO2 and not looking at it as a waste product, but actually an important feedstock to add value is that creative out of the box thinking that going to give us the breakthroughs that we need.  

CC:  WELL IT SOUNDS WONDERFUL.  THANK YOU VERY MUCH, STEVE.

SM:  It’s been a pleasure talking with you. 

Steve MacDonald is the CEO of ERA - Emissions Reduction Alberta.

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