New membrane turns CO2 into biofuels, ‘green’ feedstock for plastics

Rating: High school and post-secondary

Summary: Markham interviews Prof. Steven Holdcroft of Simon Fraser University about his team’s research work developing ion exchange membranes that help in the conversion of captured CO2 emissions into green fuels.

Related links:

SFU professor aims to convert CO2 into clean energy with national funding

Canadian carbon capture, utilization, and storage market

Markham Hislop: As part of the response to climate change, we’re learning how to take carbon dioxide out of various fuels and things like crude oil and natural gas and turn it into other products. A professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC is leading this charge. His name is Steven Wholecraft. We’re going to talk to him about his research.

Maybe what we could do is just start with an overview of what you and your team are doing.

Steven Holdcraft: We’re involved in researching new materials that hopefully help clean the planet and make a transition away from the fossil fuels petrochemical industry and the move to a green energy source. If CO2 emissions are being limited from various sources, then we want to take those CO2 sources and convert them into fuels and reuse them.

Markham Hislop: I’ve heard of other projects that are trying to do this. The basic idea is that you capture the CO2 and then that can be turned into a biofuel. That correct?

Steven Holdcraft: Yes, it can be converted into a fuel, but it can also be converted in principle into a chemical feed stock that can then go on to use in plastics and those plastics eventually, if they ever become CO2, then we can recapture the CO2 and then we use it all over again. So it’s like a circular economy.

Markham Hislop: That’s fascinating because that’s something I had not heard. Could you elaborate on that a little bit more.

Steven Holdcraft: When we capture the CO2 it’s sequestered underground in massive tanks or caverns, or it may be captured as a fluid gas coming from emissions. And so one of the products that can be made from CO2 reduction is ethylene, for instance, which is a primary feed spot stock for polyethylene, which is a plastic that’s used all around the world for many different applications.

So instead of having to take crude oil and refine it into ethylene, we can potentially get CO2 and convert it into ethylene. And then we use that in the preliminary causation to make polyethylene and so on.

Markham Hislop: Now let’s talk about a practical application of that because in Alberta there are a couple of carbon capture and sequestering projects. The big one is the Shell Quest project. So if I understand this correctly, a technology that you eventually develop and commercialize would take that  CO2 process it into ethylene. Alberta is the second largest petrochemical cluster in North America, and you could then have an inexpensive new feedstock for that industry.

Steven Holdcraft: That’s the general idea. These are big picture ideas, of course, and they require a lot of advancements in the technology, with each research group, playing its part, as we are doing.

We are focusing on the membranes that help the seal to separate the gases and the products in the CO2 reduction. Some groups are working on the engineering and our expertise is that we make the membranes that are stable to allow this process to come together.

Markham Hislop: That makes you a membrane expert. And I’m very interested in this because we’ve interviewed a couple of other companies like Summit Nanotech out of Calgary that are using nanotube membranes to do things like take lithium out of saltwater in Chile. Is that a similar kind of technology?

Steven Holdcraft: In the broadest sense. It’s similar in that you’re trying to separate reactants and products but the applications and the chemistry involved are very different.

In our case, CO2 reduction requires quite alkaline conditions and membranes that can survive caustic, alkaline conditions just didn’t exist. At Simon Fraser, we were fortunate to discover a material that is not only can transport the irons needed for the reduction of CO2, but also is stable in alkaline conditions. And that’s where our major discovery.

Markham Hislop: Would it be fair to say, Steven, that depending on the application in energy, that there’s an opportunity for Canada to become a leader in membrane research and development and commercialization and manufacturing of membrane technologies?

Steven Holdcraft: Absolutely. And that is the plan in Canada. We have an amazing history of developing electric-chemical technologies. I won’t list them, but they’re involving water splitting to hydrogen and oxygen and using hydrogen and oxygen in fuel cells.

In fact, in Canada, we have a gap in that technology and membrane technology, the scale of it. So three years ago, we formed a company which has now spun off and run independently in Vancouver. And they’re aiming to be the world leaders in this technology. And it is a massive technology and we’re producing, hundreds and hundreds of kilograms of material and thousands of square meters of polymer that will hopefully supply similar steel to electrolyzers around the world.

Markham Hislop: If we think of this membrane as a technology that will move from the lab and eventually into the market, what are the one or two key obstacles to the adoption of the membrane technology?

Steven Holdcraft: There needs to be development and future research into the catalyst that can selectively convert CO2 into carbon monoxide, into methanol, into ethylene. Each catalyst works differently, produces a different product.

Then the membranes have to be tailor-made for that particular product and be stable. And then one has to put all this together in an engineering way at scale. And so there are challenges there from the basic chemistry to physics, to chemical engineering and large-scale production, and then the generation of large scale materials and the production of it, the quality control. So it’s a fantastic challenge and we’re all very excited about it.

Markham Hislop: Last question. Stephen, you teach at at SFU, and I’m sure you get asked this question by your students all the time. Is there opportunity for young Canadians to get educated and trained in the technical requirements for this industry and are there then employment opportunities to help you and companies like the one you mentioned in their work?

Steven Holdcraft: Oh, yes. It’s a fantastic time to be in the field, whether you’re a polymer chemistry researcher like me, or an electric chemist or a chemical engineering, this whole field of clean green energy, clean energy, whichever way you want to call it is, is a growing field. The number of jobs are increasing. I don’t want to say exponentially, but they’re rising in our power scale and big capital. And Vancouver is a fantastic place to do this research. But we’re not the only place doing it. It’s a wonderful opportunity in almost every discipline you can think of.

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