Finding a way to “recycle” carbon dioxide

Finding a way to “recycle” carbon dioxide

Ottawa startup Hyperion is piloting a system that turns pollution into high-grade minerals.

Heather Ward, the CEO and co-founder of carbon tech company Hyperion, has spent a lot of time looking at smokestacks. She didn’t always have a passion for the industrial sector, mind you — her father started Canada’s first environmental engineering program at the University of New Brunswick in the 1980s; growing up, she was his sidekick on visits to manufacturing plants and other industrial sites. “It was so boring,” says Ward. “We would get photos developed and I would be like ‘These are all smokestacks!’ ”

But the pollution-spewing infrastructure made a lasting impact, even as Ward pursued a career in marketing and communications. In 2017, while working as the director of community at Impact Hub Ottawa, a collective of social entrepreneurs, she met chemical engineer Jerry Flynn, who was interested in reimagining carbon dioxide. His concept was to build the world’s first industrial carbon recycling system — a way of transforming carbon dioxide into other materials. The ambitious idea has huge potential to help heavy industry decarbonize: The cement industry alone contributes close to seven per cent of global carbon emissions, roughly one quarter of all industrial emissions. Their values aligned in wanting to use their skills for good, and the smokestacks of Ward’s childhood came puffing back up as she helped Flynn think through a strategy to commercialize his invention.

A year later, she joined his company with Flynn as lead engineer and Ward as CEO, making sure his idea didn’t gather dust on a shelf. “Engineers are creating great technology, but they’re not always the ones to bring it to market. Communications and marketing, building partnerships, engaging clients and stakeholders on market fit, raising capital and doing public relations — I saw how these soft skills could help,” says Ward.

The need for innovation in this sector is urgent. Concrete is the most-used substance in the world after water, and its demand is skyrocketing. It’s estimated that between now and 2060, the global building stock will double — the pace of construction is akin to building a city the size of New York City every month for the next 36 years. As Sarah Petrevan, vice president of sustainability at the Cement Association of Canada, says, “We need to find a way to make this very versatile building material net zero.”

In a bind: Seeking sustainable swaps for clinker

If, like many people, you assumed concrete was just cement by another name, let Petrevan’s deft analogy help: Basically, cement is the flour in the cake that is concrete. The bulk of emissions come from making that flour, largely during the production of clinker, a binding agent derived from cooking limestone, sand and clay at an energy-intensive 1,500° Celsius. Clinker is effectively the backbone of cement, which is in turn the essential binding component in concrete. If we keep using those same methods to create clinker, it’s estimated that concrete production could be responsible for releasing 3.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide over the next 25 years.

One of the best ways to green the industry is by finding alternatives to clinker and reducing the carbon intensity of cement production. This is one of the problems Hyperion set out to solve, by focusing on a circular solution for the cement and concrete sector, removing carbon dioxide emissions at their source, while at the same time producing a high-value offtake material used to make concrete. The trick to getting it tested was figuring out how to devise technology that could be transported to industrial sites and implemented on the spot, without requiring major construction and infrastructure changes.

Within a year of Ward and Flynn joining forces, the company had developed a prototype, which earned the company a semifinalist spot in the 2018 COSIA Carbon XPrize. Hyperion has scaled its technology into a full pilot system, which was installed at a cement-producing plant just west of Bath, Ont., owned by Lafarge, the largest cement and concrete company in the world. (As Ward puts it: “Go big or go home.”) The 40-foot long shipping container is a drop-in unit, directly connected to the plant’s emission stack. The system consists of a scrubber that captures waste carbon dioxide from the cement flue gas, which then gets piped into the container and goes through Hyperion’s patented reactive mineralization process that cleans and converts the waste gas to a mineral solid, a precipitated calcium carbonate product with many useful applications that also permanently stores the carbon dioxide.

Calcium carbonate is a marketable substance used in everything from antacid tablets to wall paint and toothpaste. The production of this high-purity, fine particle grade material is part of what distinguishes Hyperion’s tech from many other carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) solutions. The company currently buys its other chemical inputs, but it has plans to start exploring extracting the mineral from industrial waste sources as well as regenerating these within its core process. This would create a loop that will make its process carbon-negative — and because the mineral is used as a binding and strengthening additive to make concrete, it would help avoid having to mine for the material.

Thinking outside the box: Putting carbon to use

In the CCUS world, companies have tended to focus more on the storage part of the acronym than the utilization side. As Ward notes, recycling carbon and turning it into revenue (in the form of high-value minerals) makes more sense than burying it in the ground at a cost.

Petrevan agrees that the cement industry needs to think beyond storage — and fast — if it wants to hit its emissions targets. “We need to separate the conversations around storage and utilization, because different regions have different solutions available to them,” she says, pointing out that while many industrial facilities are based in Ontario, the province doesn’t have the terrain needed for geological storage. “More effort is needed on the carbon utilization side.”

The cement industry aims to be net zero by 2050. To reach that goal, systems like Hyperion’s will play a big role, with CCUS solutions projected to account for nearly 15 percent of that effort.

Hyperion is currently refining and testing its mineral offtake for products like Lafarge’s low-carbon ECOPact concrete. And keeping in mind the wide range of potential markets for high-grade calcium carbonate, the company is working to get even higher value grades of the mineral that could be used in such applications as 3D-printing. The plan, Ward says, is to be fully commercial by 2028, a challenge she relishes.

“There were a lot of the naysayers saying, ‘You’ll never be able to deal with that material, you’ll never be able to get your pure mineral at the end,’ ” says Ward. Hyperion’s nearly-ready-to-use, light, bright and pure mineral made from cement waste products is proving them wrong, one tonne of carbon at a time.

Hyperion is one of six companies in Mission from MaRS: Carbon Management, a special initiative that aims to help Canada achieve its net-zero goals by accelerating the adoption of carbon removal solutions.

Photo illustration: Stephen Gregory; Photos: Unsplash