Skip to main content
enterprise west

At a Steeper Energy plant in Denmark. On the right is company co-founder Steen Iversen, pictured with Thomas Helmer Pedersen, a student at Aalborg University.

Perry Toms has a catchy elevator pitch for potential investors in his Calgary-based green energy firm.

"We can do in 15 minutes what nature does in 150 million years," says Mr. Toms, co-founder and chief executive officer of Steeper Energy Canada Ltd.

To that end, the startup has developed a technology to turn biomass – plant matter – into heavy fuel that burns like diesel.

"Using a combination of pressure, temperature and some catalysts, we take biomass and concentrate its energy into a hydrocarbon molecule," says Mr. Toms, who cut his teeth in the oil and gas industry in Calgary in the 1980s.

"The idea is to produce liquid fuels and chemicals that would be equivalent to petroleum products in the marketplace."

The key ingredient in Steeper's recipe is, of course, biomass – a plentiful and renewable resource that could play a crucial role in fighting climate change. Sometimes called feedstock, biomass is often derived from forestry or agricultural waste such as wheat straw – though some crops are grown specifically for use as biomass.

Calgary has in recent years become a small but increasingly vibrant hub for the development of technologies that use biomass to replace fossil fuels. It can also be used as a carbon sink for removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

As the oil and gas industry sheds jobs, companies and the city itself must look to innovation and research to develop more sustainable solutions that would also be in line with the province's new climate-change policy and planned tax on carbon emissions.

Ironically, the city's expertise in oil and gas production could position it as a future global leader in the green energy revolution, particularly in technologies that leverage biomass, says David Layzell, a biology professor and director of the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research initiative at the University of Calgary.

"In some ways, Calgary is a good fit because it has a lot of chemical engineers, and the [energy] industry is really dealing with biomass," says Mr. Layzell, who is also a member of Calgary Biomass Utilization Guild, composed of companies and researchers seeking biological solutions to energy and climate-change challenges.

The big difference between oil and biomass is that true biomass is plant matter already part of the natural carbon cycle. Trees and tall grasses, for example, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while they grow. Upon death, they decompose, returning some of the carbon back to the environment. As an energy source, biomass is considered carbon-neutral because its combustion adds no new carbon to the natural cycle.

In contrast, fossil fuels – made from dead plants and animals that are hundreds of millions of years old – inject more carbon into the atmosphere. "So a vehicle running on biodiesel made from biomass is essentially running on solar energy," Mr. Layzell says.

Steeper Energy, using technology developed by its other co-founder, Steen Iversen, aims to reduce reliance on fossil fuels for long haul transportation. About 30 to 35 per cent of all oil is ultimately used to fuel ships, trains, jets and trucks, Mr. Toms says.

"This industry can't be easily electrified like automobiles," he says. "You need a high-energy, high-density liquid fuel, and what we want to do is create biofuels compatible with existing petroleum infrastructure."

Steeper is not the only biomass story in Calgary. Other firms are engaged in research, too, including Mustus Energy Ltd., which is commercializing a process to turn forestry waste into electricity.

Even the City of Calgary is engaged in a pilot. Two years ago it launched a project to grow several hundred acres of biomass on marginal agricultural land outside the city.

"This is probably one of the largest biomass plantations in North America," says John Lavery, a senior scientist with Sylvis, a consulting firm based in New Westminster, B.C., working on the project. A fast-growing species of willow is being grown on land fertilized with bio-solids – organic waste from the city – that can be harvested for a variety of needs.

Among the potential uses is biochar, which is produced by burning biomass without the presence of oxygen. "That's really a fancy name for charcoal," Mr. Layzell says.

Biochar can be burned to produce carbon-neutral energy. It can also act as a carbon sink by removing carbon from the atmosphere by soaking it up and storing it.

Biochar can also be used in air and water filters, which makes it even more commercially viable.

"This is what's used in Brita water filters, though they're made from coal now. But they could be manufactured from biomass," he says. Researchers are also looking into whether the material could be used to clean the water in oil-sands tailing ponds.

While many of these projects are experimental, they are sowing fertile economic ground, says Steve Price, CEO of Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions, a provincial government agency promoting sustainable economic development.

"Actual biomass utilization might be minimal now," he said, "but the applications under development could have a significant impact when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint down the road."