Two Canadian companies and one whose research is based in B.C. have been awarded US$1-million each for their work in the fast-growing industry of carbon-dioxide removal.
The 15 winners of the international competition include Planetary Technologies of Dartmouth, Vancouver-based Carbin Minerals Inc., and a partnership of Takachar and Safi Organics Ltd. U.S.-based Takachar’s research is based at the University of British Columbia and Safi Organics is based in Kenya.
Carbon removal involves extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to store it in the environment. The removal industry has seen an increase in demand because its services are needed to help reach climate goals.
The prizes were awarded through the XPRIZE competition, which is funded by Elon Musk’s the Musk Foundation and is aimed at spurring innovation in carbon-dioxide removal. To enter, companies must have functional technology and an environmentally sustainable path to being able to capture a billion tonnes of carbon.
The competition was launched on Earth Day 2021 and will run until Earth Day 2025, when the top team will be awarded US$50-million. This year’s US$1-million award was called the milestone prize. Any company can apply for the top prize, whether it took part in the milestone round or not.
On April 12, Stripe Inc., Alphabet Inc., Shopify Inc., Meta Platforms Inc. and McKinsey & Co. announced the creation of Frontier, a group whose goal is to spur the development of carbon-removal innovation by guaranteeing a market will exist for carbon-removal services, according to its website.
The group is committing to buy US$925-million of permanent carbon removal between 2022 and 2030. Shopify has purchased some from both Carbin Minerals and Planetary Technologies, meaning it’s paying the companies to remove carbon.
The increased attention on the sector is warranted because the world will need to be able to remove 10 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere a year by 2050, said Mike Kelland, chief executive officer of Planetary Technologies. Currently, the largest carbon-removal system in the world can remove 4,000 tonnes a year, he said.
“To get to 10 billion tonnes a year in 28 years is going to be absolutely huge – just a huge amount of investment, a huge amount of technology development,” he said.
The prize money will allow the companies to expand their operations, but it is also a mark of distinction from XPRIZE’s expert judges. The company is trying to make an impact in a nascent industry, Mr. Kelland said. “If we have that checkmark of validation, it really accelerates our progress.”
Kevin Kung, co-founder, president and chief technology officer of Takachar, said the award was especially validating because the carbon-removal market seems to favour large-scale projects “sometimes to the unintentional exclusion of smaller projects and smaller farmers in rural, underserved communities,” he said.
His company’s technology allows farmers in underserved communities to play a part in carbon-removal efforts while saving money on supplies.
The biomass created from farming is often difficult to transport to a facility where it can be turned into useful products, he said. In many rural communities, it is disposed of by burning.
In Kenya, where Takachar will be operating a pilot project with Safi Organics, most of the fertilizer farmers use is imported, making it expensive and susceptible to global supply chain disruption.
“In recent months, there has been both shortages and sometimes unavailability of the fertilizer, which creates food insecurity,” he said.
Takachar develops low-cost portable attachments for tractors and pickup trucks that can turn the biomass into carbon-based fertilizer blends, biofuel or other chemicals. This allows for localized production of key commodities, Mr. Kung said.
“We can essentially build rural economies that are more independent from the vulnerable global supply chain, at the same time growing local jobs and income opportunities in a carbon-negative way,” he said.
Planetary Technologies is aiming to have the ability to capture a billion tonnes of carbon by 2035.
Carbon naturally dissolves into rain in the atmosphere, reacting with rocks and creating bicarbonate that washes into the sea, storing the carbon in the ocean.
Planetary Technologies speeds up the process by adding antacids to the ocean. As the antacid goes into the ocean, it reacts with carbon in the atmosphere and turns it into bicarbonate to be stored in the sea.
But purchasing antacid produces more carbon dioxide than Planetary captures, Mr. Kelland said. So the company turned to mine tailings – material left over from ore extraction – which is turned into antacid using an electrolysis system. The electrolysis produces hydrogen and the tailings produce battery metals, which can be sold to fund carbon removal.
Carbin Minerals also uses mine tailings to accelerate one of the Earth’s natural processes. The company uses a tailing called ultramafic rock, which is filled with magnesium and naturally reactive to carbon dioxide, said Peter Scheuermann, chief technology officer and co-founder. These tailings naturally absorb carbon, creating magnesium carbonate.
Carbin uses autonomous rovers that traverse the tailings and maximize the surface area that is exposed to the atmosphere, causing the carbon to be captured faster than it would be naturally, Mr. Scheuermann said.
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