A chemical engineering company spun off from research funded in part by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions has won a $3 million grant from an Alberta government carbon mitigation competition aiming to identify opportunities for turning waste carbon dioxide into saleable products.
The winning technology, developed at the University of British Columbia (UBC) by chemist David Wilkinson and his students, involves an electrochemical reactor coupled with an ion-selective membrane. The membrane and reactor desalinate wastewater for reuse by the oil and gas sector, and also convert by-product carbon dioxide (CO2) into carbonate salts and acids for on-site use by the industry.
A considerable proportion of the greenhouse gas emissions from the oil industry are a result of its vast demand for water, particularly for enhanced oil recovery, and, subsequent to its use, combustion of fossil fuels during the transport of wastewater away from the site. With water injection, for example, water is injected into an aquifer under the oil formation to keep up the pressure in the reservoir and push it upwards. A similar process of hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ is used to recover “tight” natural gas that is trapped in underground rock that would otherwise be inaccessible.
In Alberta, the sector uses a full nine percent of the groundwater available in the province. In Saskatchewan, the sector is allocated three percent of total water.
If this waste stream can instead be recycled, this could significantly reduce the carbon emissions from the sector, as well as conserve water supplies. In addition, the technology can be coupled to a waste gas-to-power system, further enhancing its emissions mitigation potential—capable of removing roughly one megatonne of CO2, while conserving some 11 million barrels of water, each year.
The sector already recycles some of its water, but the technology proposed by the start-up, Mangrove Water Technologies, looks set to be a cheaper alternative to conventional desalination and CO2 removal techniques, as well as being easy to operate, transport and scale up to industrial requirements. The CEO of the firm, PhD candidate Saad Dara, is also a current PICS fellow.
In 2014, the team won $500,000, along with 23 other first-round winners, from the Emissions Reduction Alberta Grand Challenge: Innovative Carbon Uses. The winner of the third and final round will win $10 million to fund further commercialisation of the technology in Alberta.
Funds for the competition come via Alberta government grants in turn paid by the province’s large emitters into its Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.