We interviewed Ryan Bourns from Calgary based Carbon Upcyling Technologies. We talked about their startup journey, process, products and ambitions for the future.
Thanks Ryan for being here. Could you introduce yourself to the CO2 Smart Use community?
Absolutely, my name is Ryan Bourns. I’m based in Calgary, Canada, and I’m the business strategy and development lead for the carbon utilization company called Carbon Upcycling Technologies, also based in Calgary. We have 10 full-time employees working both in the office as well as onsite with our newly commissioned reactor and process facility.
When was Carbon Upcycling Technologies founded? And what is its history?
The company is about 6,5 years old now and was founded with the vision of using the waste of today to build tomorrow. In Calgary there’s a lot of oil and gas and we actually spun out of an oil field services company. We wanted to look at different applications for carbon-based nanomaterials, but quickly discovered that there was an even more interesting process to make use of the conventional industrial wastes of today, like CO2 and others. We actually started to use this waste to build better materials for a few different industries. There was, and continues to be, a lot of government interest in utilizing CO2. This was the case for our province of Alberta where they were incentivizing companies like ours to further develop CO2 use technologies through a Grand Challenge.
Where do you get your CO2 from? And what quality is needed?
Currently, we’re in the backyard of a natural gas power plant here in Calgary. There’s obviously quite a bit of CO2 to work with there, and onsite we and a few other carbon utilization companies, as well as a carbon capture system, are situated. We’re taking the gaseous CO2 emissions straight from that natural gas power plant and are redirecting a stream of that into our facility. We don’t necessarily need a hundred percent pure CO2 stream. We’ve tested even with 80% purity and it still allows us to run our process without any noticeable degradation.
What other feedstocks do you use?
In our process, we have two inputs on a batch-to-batch basis. We use a raw, powdered material such as coal fly ash, which would otherwise be landfilled, steel slag, and different types of crushed glass which can’t be recycled. Then basically we put that powdered feedstock into our reactor and pressurize it with CO2. And then we run our process, which is a batch process that lasts for a couple of hours.
What products do you make with the CO2?
We use a lot of different feedstocks, leading to different applications for our technology. We can use fly ash to produce our concrete additives which improves the strength of concrete by 30-40% and can allow for a 10%+ reduction of cement in concrete. Graphite and talc can be used in the polymers industry to supplement carbon intensive inputs into plastics. We also developed a corrosion coating material that protects concrete infrastructure against degradation in highly acidic environments. Right now, we’re working with a few different product developers in the consumer product space, of which today we launched Expedition Air. This is our collaborative platform where we collaborate with product developers to make consumer products from CO2, like planters, pens, and also artwork. This platform enables consumers to actively choose products that have embedded CO2, to reduce the impact on conventional consumer products.
How does the process work?
We’ve developed a very low-energy process to utilize CO2. We do this through an adsorption process that makes the powder feedstock act like a sponge and soak up CO2. This is facilitated through our reactors which look like large, rotating vessels. We pressurize these vessels with CO2. As we rotate the vessel, we have catalysts that exfoliate the material inside and create an activated surface area. This produces a more reactive material which has permanently embedded CO2 within it.
With what kind of partners do you work together?
Yeah, I’m glad you asked. We are quite lucky with some of the partners we’ve been able to work with over the last few years and certainly owe them a lot for where we are today. There’s a local family-owned ready-mix company called Burnco who was our first commercial client for our enhanced fly ash product. But we also have some international partners as well. LafargeHolcim is a group that we worked with starting in 2018 through their accelerator in France. Recently the company made some very impressive commitments to lowering their carbon impact. And in the last few months, we signed a partnership with CEMEX Ventures, the VC arm of the Mexican cement producer, one of the largest in the world. And they’re actively investigating the use of different what they call supplementary cementitious materials, or SCMs. With cement being like 97% of the emissions associated with some concrete mixes this is an important investigation that will allow CEMEX to drastically reduce the CO2 associated with their cement and concrete products. Along with these partners, we are actively working with other partners who have a waste feedstock they have interest in beneficiating, such as CO2 or fly ash, as well as partners interested in having CO2-embedded materials for their different industrial applications.
What are your scale-up ambitions?
We can now process about 20 tons of product per day at our Calgary facility. But as we look at future opportunities, we’re looking at something that’s more in a hundred ton per day scale due to the enormous volume of products in the concrete industry. We will look to deploy this technology across the world so that we can truly move the needle on the CO2 use landscape.
What are your plans and ambitions for Europe?
Our partners at CEMEX Ventures are based in Madrid, and we’re investigating some opportunities together. We were also accepted into the Vinci Catalyst program which is a program from a large French construction company. They have numerous business units that are connected to the work that we’re doing and with them we will look at pilot project opportunities in Europe. Outside of these partners, we are interested in finding new opportunities to deploy our technology and make use of the great CO2 use ecosystem that is being developed across Europe.
What is your biggest challenge?
The inertia and general reluctance to change is a big task. And the scale of these industries is remarkable so to make a true impact you really need to get to that industrial scale. That’s not an easy task and we need essential partners for that.
How can the CO2 Smart Use network help you?
It’s a great platform to actually see who’s is taking an active role in the CO2 Use industry. Having a consolidated source of information and actual contacts for those partners is a huge help for companies like us.
And I think that one of the main reasons why we’re so interested is that this is a great opportunity to actually know those details and know who those interested partners are. And one other thing is that there’s different industries, that we hadn’t initially investigated that we didn’t know there was interested partners in certain industries and that’s a great learning opportunity for us. And as I said, with the nature of our technology and in this industry having partners that you can actually co-locate or be connected to facilities is a huge factor in the success of potential projects. We’re trying to position ourselves as being very flexible and open to different opportunities and we want to share that message.
Yeah, so let’s get that CO2 out of the air and into products, right?
We’d like to interview more inspiring organizations working to grow the CCU economy. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested.