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Steven Chu, currenly a director of physics at Stanford University, says carbon capture is critical for a clean energy future.MIKE THEILER/Reuters

A Vancouver startup firm has won a key backer in former U.S. energy secretary and Nobel laureate Steven Chu as the company seeks to commercialize technology that it promises will drive down the cost of capturing carbon dioxide from industrial flue gases.

Inventys Thermal Technologies is set to announce Wednesday that Dr. Chu – currently a director of physics at Stanford University – has joined its board of directors.

Inventys is pioneering a new approach to carbon capture that chief executive André Boulet says will reduce both capital and operating costs to less than a fifth of current processes.

"There is no question that there's an element of added credibility that comes with Dr. Chu," Mr. Boulet said in an interview from Vancouver. "He's not only a brilliant scientist but he has a broad view of the energy space in the U.S. that will help us as we try to break into that market."

Dr. Chu served as energy secretary through President Barack Obama's first term and, prior to that, served as director at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He was known for his enthusiastic endorsement of emerging technology to solve environmental challenges, including the use of carbon capture and storage to reduce climate-change greenhouse gas emissions.

"Carbon capture is a critical technology to move us to a clean energy future and Inventys has developed a practical, compact and low-cost system that allows existing fossil-fuel power plants to dramatically lower their carbon emissions," Dr. Chu said in a press release issued by Inventys.

A number of companies are pursuing heavily subsidized CCS projects, including Royal Dutch Shell PLC with a $1.35-billion project at its Scotford oil sands upgrader near Edmonton, and a $1.24-billion effort by SaskPower at its Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant.

The International Energy Agency has pegged CCS as a critical technology that will allow the world to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions while continuing to depend on fossil fuels for energy. But it remains prohibitively expensive, except in limited applications where the carbon dioxide can be sold to oil companies to enhance their recovery of crude.

Inventys is currently working with Nova Chemicals to install a carbon capture unit on one of its gas boilers at the petrochemical plant in Joffre, Alta. The recovered CO2 will be used in enhanced oil recovery.

The Vancouver-based startup has received funding from the federal Sustainable Development Technology Canada and Alberta's Climate Change and Emissions Management Corp. Mr. Boulet previously worked in Vancouver's once-burgeoning hydrogen sector, and said he's well aware of the pitfalls involved in commercializing a promising technology.

But he said the company's VeloxoTherm system is far more compact than traditional solvent-based carbon capture units, and can be assembled off-site, providing major savings on capital costs. And, because it runs at relatively low temperature and low pressure, it does not rob the host plant of operational efficiencies.

The company will focus in the short term on projects that use the CO2 for enhanced oil recovery because no oil or chemical company or utility wants to pay to capture the carbon and then simply sequester it underground.

"The harsh reality is that there is no CCS market" without enhanced oil recovery, Mr. Boulet said. "Without government policy, no one is going to do it. … We need to get politicians to understand that it is not nearly as expensive as they've been led to believe."

He expects his technology to reduce the costs so the capture and sequestration would be viable at a $50-per-tonne carbon price. Shell currently says it factors in an anticipated $40-per-tonne carbon price in its strategic planning, while ExxonMobil Corp. says it is planning for a $60-per-tonne charge.