NRC to launch new innovation challenge focused on clean fuels

Mark Lowey
June 12, 2019

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) will launch a new innovation collaboration Challenge Program in July.

The NRC’s Materials for Clean Fuels Challenge Program will initially offer $2.4 million per year to fund research by academic groups and Canadian small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), in collaboration with NRC researchers, said program director Dr. Phil De Luna. The new program is focused on developing materials and technologies for low-carbon fuels and low-carbon industrial chemicals, he told the annual Canada Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) Innovation Summit, June 4 in Calgary.

“We’re really looking at this program as an opportunity for NRC to collaborate more widely,” De Luna said. “We want to open up our doors and work with the leading academics and SMEs in the country.”

In an email to RE$EARCH MONEY, De Luna said this is the latest example of the NRC spending funds externally to establish research programs. The Challenge Programs initiative is modeled on the highly successful Advanced Research Projects Agency in the U.S.

In Budget 2018, the Liberal government committed $150 million over five years, with $30 million per year ongoing, for the NRC’s four Challenge Programs. The other three programs are: High-throughput and Secure Networks; Health – Engineered Cell and Gene Therapies; and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Design.

De Luna said the Materials for Clean Fuels Challenge Program will support R&D projects in three main areas:

  • CO2 conversion: capturing carbon dioxide from an industrial flue stack or from the air, and then converting it to low-carbon fuels and other value-added chemicals;
  • Hydrogen at scale: decarbonizing the hydrogen used in making current fuels and industrial chemicals; and
  • Accelerated materials discovery: leveraging AI and robotics to help speed the search for novel materials such as catalysts, electrodes, electrolytes, membranes and nanomaterials.

Focus on zero-emission fuels and low-carbon industrial processes

Projects funded by the Materials for Clean Fuels Challenge Program will focus on the two Canadian industrial sectors where greenhouse gas emissions are increasing: oil and gas extraction and production, and manufacturing and petrochemicals.

“The two areas that are a real challenge fundamentally and technologically are zero-emission transportation fuels and the need to decarbonize industrial processes,” De Luna said. “This is where the NRC sees the most value in putting our money.”

The program will use a phased approach, he said. The exploration phase will fund an initial seven to 10 projects at an average cost of $200,000 each. The development phase will reduce the number of projects funded but increase the amount of funding for each to accelerate commercialization.

“What I care about most from this program is that the solutions we work on actually get used and implemented in the field,” De Luna said.

The NRC also is building a new national laboratory in Mississauga, the first time the government agency has had a presence in the Greater Toronto Area, he said. The facility will be dedicated to accelerating development and commercialization of materials, starting with the Materials for Clean Fuels Challenge program.

De Luna told the Calgary summit that he sees Canada’s oil sands industry being involved “every step of the way” in the new program, including assessing, adopting and deploying the new technologies. “The only way I see it (this program) coming to fruition is if the oil sands are there,” De Luna said, while acknowledging that the industry has the fastest-growing greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. “The point of this Challenge Program is to be ambitious and risk-taking and take challenges to address that.”

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