Alberta R&D facility helping carbon tech startups navigate “valley of death” to commercialization

Mark Lowey
November 2, 2021

An Alberta R&D facility for testing technologies that combat climate change is helping startup companies bridge the “valley of death” to commercialization.

The Alberta Carbon Conversion Centre (ACCTC), owned by InnoTech Alberta — a subsidiary of the crown corporation Alberta Innovates — offers companies a facility to test new technologies that convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into useful products.

“We’re getting attraction from lots of tech startups and small to medium-sized enterprises, as well as large companies including multinationals,” says John Van Ham, the executive director of sector alignment and programs for InnoTech Alberta.

The challenge of scaling up technologies from the laboratory bench to commercialization is a pernicious problem in Canada. The pre-commercialization stage is often called the “valley of death” for tech startups.

To date, four companies that have tested technologies at the ACCTC have successfully commercialized their CO2 conversion products, including Air Company, a start-up based in New York City that converts CO2 to alcohol products that are then refined into vodka, hand sanitizer and perfume.

“So many technologies die in the pilot scale, and one of the reasons is that piloting is expensive as hell,” said Stafford Sheehan, the co-founder and chief technology officer at Air Company, in an interview with Research Money. The ACCTC bridges the gap by providing a facility at a reasonable cost for piloting and scaling technology, he added.

Air Company, which won the top prize in NASA’s CO2 Conversion Challenge, is now working with NASA on plans to deploy CO2 conversion sites in space, including on Mars. That would enable astronauts to convert CO2 into alcohols and then to sugars to make plastics, adhesives, fuels, food and medicine.

Private and public investment in CCUS is growing

Widespread deployment of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies will be crucial to significantly reduce carbon emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.

Federal Budget 2021 included an investment tax credit for capital invested in CCUS projects, beginning in 2022. The budget also allocated $319 million over seven years for Natural Resources Canada to support R&D aimed at commercializing CCUS technologies.

The Alberta government has also taken the position that CCUS technology will be necessary to achieve the federal target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Premier Jason Kenney said in March that the expansion of CCUS technology is a “potential game-changer for the reduction of emissions," especially for Alberta’s energy sector.

In May, the federal and Alberta governments launched the deputy minister-level Alberta-Canada Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage Steering Committee to leverage the province’s early CCUS leadership to advance climate goals, attract project investments and support economic recovery.

Alberta Innovates’ Clean Technology program and Alberta’s Industrial Energy Efficiency, Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage grant program both offer funding support for CCUS projects.

Facility is unique in North America

The ACCTC is the only R&D facility in North America that provides a direct and continuous supply of CO2 from an operating commercial gas-fired power plant — located at the Shepard Energy Centre in Calgary — to five onsite test bays, Ham said.

The centre was first built with $20 million in federal and provincial funding to support startups competing in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. The competition challenged innovators to develop breakthrough technologies that convert the most CO2 into products with the highest net value.

Nova Scotia-based CarbonCure Technologies, a Carbon XPRIZE finalist, received one of two $7.5-million grand prizes in April. The company’s technology injects recycled CO2 into fresh concrete to reduce its carbon footprint. It has since been installed in more than 400 concrete plants around the world.

Carbon Corp., another Carbon XPRIZE finalist that is still working at the ACCTC, will soon have its carbon conversion technology installed at a power plant in Edmonton. The company, a Canadian subsidiary of Virginia-based C2CNT, electrochemically converts CO2 to carbon nanotubes that can strengthen materials such as concrete.

On Nov. 1, the Emissions Reduction Alberta agency announced it will contribute $15 million toward the first phase of the Genesee Carbon Conversion Centre at the Genesee power plant west of Edmonton. The centre will use Carbon Corp.’s technology to convert 30,000 tonnes of CO2 per year into up to 7,500 tonnes annually of carbon nanotubes.

The centre will be built by Capital Power, a 40-per-cent equity owner in C2CNT. It is expected to be operational in 2022.

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