Economical way to turn captured carbon into clean fuel developed by Waterloo researchers

Monday, November 6, 2023

Economical way to turn captured carbon into clean fuel developed by Waterloo researchers

This story was originally posted on CBC KW

Researchers at the University of Waterloo say they have made a historic breakthrough when it comes to being able to capture carbon and turn it into sustainable, clean fuel in a way that's economically viable.

Yimin Wu is a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering at the university and also the Tang Family Chair in New Energy Materials and Sustainability.

He says he and the researchers had three goals in their work:

  1. To mitigate carbon dioxide emissions, typically from industrial and transportation sources, that cause climate change.
  2. To make decarbonization financially feasible.
  3. Incorporate renewable electricity to develop new material for zero-emission transportation fuels and chemical feedstocks for industry.

Wu explained the findings to Craig Norris, host of CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Craig Norris: Explain for us, in the simplest terms, what exactly you've done here.

Yimin Wu: So we developed artificial leaves and they appeared in CBC News in 2019. Last time we converted carbon dioxide and water into methanol, one carbon fuse.

Building on that we developed a new version of artificial leaves and convert carbon dioxide and waters into ethanol and ethylene which are multi-carbon fuels and chemicals.

We achieved historical record of 94 per cent of efficiency. Given these high efficiencies, this makes it economically viable for scale up. 

This will help Canada for decarbonization and meet net zero targets by 2050.

A lab setting with a square device on a table that has tubes coming out of it. The tubes go into other containers. It's complicated.

This device developed by University of Waterloo researchers can capture carbon to turn it into clean fuel and it's more affordable than previous carbon capture technologies. (University of Waterloo)

Norris: What does this mean for people? Why should people care about this development?

Wu: So climate change affects the daily lives of people, such as flooding and mounting fires in British Columbia, and extreme cold weather in winter in Toronto regions. 

The reason behind climate change is the buildup of carbon dioxide emissions. By using our technologies, the oil, gas, mining, steel, chemical industry, even transportation industry, can decarbonize carbon dioxide emissions.

So we can help the ordinary people to build a sustainable environment and sustainable health.

Norris: So I'm getting from what you're saying that even though carbon capture technology has been tried before, yours is more economically viable. 

Wu: Correct.

Norris: Explain why that's so important — why is it so important to keep it affordable?

Wu: Regarding of the industry adoptions, industry always look at whether this can be profitable.

Before, nobody had achieved such high efficiencies, which makes it economical maybe not that great.

At this time, we achieve these historical levels and which [leads to] a lot of interest from the industries that want to adopt this technology for decarbonization.

Norris: How do companies or industries make use of this tech?

Wu: This technology is already patented. We are working to extend the system reactors to 1,000 hours without any downtimes. 

And then we are working with the industries like oil, gas, mining, steel and chemical industry to decarbonize the flue cells — the flue gas — from their waste gas from the power plant. And also we can integrate these devices into the vehicles and you convert the exhaust from the vehicles of ethanol and powered vehicles. (NOTE: Flue gas — sometimes called exhaust gas or stack gas — is the gas that emanates from combustion plants.)

Norris: How quickly do you think this tech could get out there and be put into use?

Wu: We are at the stages of attracting investments for the scaling up. 

I already have a few investors and also several companies or visitors to discuss the scaling up. I have a big hope for this technology.

Norris: How much money do you think it'll take to do that initial scale up?

Wu: This is a billion-dollar opportunity and taking the consideration of the high efficiencies and impressive results and the economic profitable, I'm attracting investors for this stage of scaling up.

Norris: We've talked to other researchers about their work and they say that they usually have to go to the United States to get anyone to pay attention to what they're doing. Do you find that? Is Canadian industry, is the Canadian government, do you think they're paying enough attention? Are they doing enough to support you?

Wu: Yeah, this is actually the right timing. The Canadian government put the carbon tax and this put a lot of pressures for various industries to decarbonize the waste, especially the oil, gas industry and transportation industries. I got the interest and also the investment from oil-gas industries.

While saying that, the National Research Council of Canada also provides the initial research funding to develop these technologies which shows the government is really interested and paying attention to this technology development.

Norris: In laboratories, you make hypotheses and you test them out and you test out theories. What did it feel like to you personally when you realized what you had, when you realized this breakthrough?

Wu: I feel great about my teams. Especially this work was done through the pandemic in working through so many challenges, but we made a big breakthrough in this field. 

I'm so proud of my students and my team.