Team CERT (Carbon Electrocatalytic Recycling Toronto) group photo.

Turning waste into value: Ontario-based CERT makes strides in the development of CO2 conversion technology

A small group of researchers from the University of Toronto is tackling one of today's biggest challenges: climate change. The multidisciplinary team of 10 scientists, which goes by the name CERT (Carbon Electrocatalytic Recycling Toronto), has developed a way to convert carbon dioxide into fuels and chemical feedstocks using only water and electricity. This process has zero carbon emissions, is closed-loop, modular, scalable and, the researchers believe, has the potential to enable the long-term storage of renewable energy.

CERT has had success proving this process in a laboratory setting, which is why it is one of 10 teams — and the only one based in Ontario — that has advanced to the final round of the Carbon XPRIZE, a global competition designed to encourage teams worldwide to develop "breakthrough circular carbon technologies" that convert carbon dioxide emissions into valuable products. The Carbon XPRIZE consists of three rounds — the first two are already complete — and will wrap up in March 2020, at which point two winning teams will each receive a $7.5 million grand prize. That means that CERT has just two more years to scale up its approach to CO2 conversion under real-world conditions at a large scale, and prove that its process will have a significant impact on climate change.

A unique approach to CO2 conversion

CERT is a leader in solar-harvesting technology, with seven world-record efficiency quantum-dot solar cells. Its current research focuses on the challenge of solar energy intermittency. Since solar energy cannot be collected when it's dark or when there is cloud coverage, for example, there needs to be a solution for long-term energy storage so that users can access this energy when it's needed. The group's research tackles this challenge through a process called electrocatalysis — taking renewable energy, carbon dioxide and water, and turning it into chemical fuels or feedstocks.

"We're using electrochemistry," explains Phil De Luna, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Toronto, and a member of Team CERT. "The approach is to take sunlight and convert it into electrical energy...And then use the electricity to turn CO2 into a useful good."

That's a simple explanation to a process that, as it turns out, is not very simple at all. In more technical terms, in order to promote the electrocatalytic conversion of CO2 into value-added fuels and feedstocks, novel, high efficiency catalysts made from nanostructured materials are required. The team developed a water splitting anode catalyst, made from cheap and common abundant earth metals, as well as a CO2 conversion catalyst, which is based on nanostructured metals synthesized using advanced materials processing techniques. These catalysts were brought together in a compact and scalable system to efficiently convert CO2 into usable carbon products. Essentially, this approach tackles both energy storage and carbon dioxide emissions, as the team is using the captured carbon dioxide as an energy storage solution.

There are other technologies in development that look at converting CO2 into useful goods, but these are not ideal, says De Luna, because they're hard to scale up or scale down to match energy storage requirements.

"The advantage that we have," he says, "is that one, we can power it with renewable electricity; two, it's very modular, very scalable and [has a] relatively low footprint; three, it's agile and versatile with respect to load on and off; and four, the products that we're making can meet the demand and market size that is required to make a significant amount of CO2 reduction in emissions."

In the future, De Luna sees this as an attractive technology for industries, like oil and gas, and petrochemical and chemical, that are interested in decreasing the overall carbon footprint of their processes.

"Our technology offers a way for them to continue the operations that they currently are specialized in, but also a way for them to decrease their CO2 emissions while bringing value to the captured CO2 that they bring," De Luna explains.

There's no place like home

The team first started working on this electrocatalysis concept four years ago under the guidance of University of Toronto professor and Vice-President International, Ted Sargent. Since entering the XPRIZE competition in 2015, they've been able to describe their technology, process, potential products, and how they plan to achieve the requirements and goals of the competition (Round 1), and demonstrate their technology at pilot scale using a simulated power plant flue gas stream (Round 2). Next, they'll have to demonstrate their technology under real world conditions, at a scale that is at least 10 times greater than the semifinal requirements. This will take place at one of two purpose-built industrial test sites — a coal-fired power plant in Wyoming, or a natural gas-fired power plant in Alberta.

CERT is proud to be one of the 10 teams selected to advance to the final round of this international competition. It's interesting to note that four of these teams are based in Canada and one, CERT, is based in Ontario. In fact, De Luna believes that being based in Canada and, in particular, in Ontario, has had a huge impact on its success in the competition so far.

First and foremost is the financial support that it has received.

"We wouldn't have been able to do it without OCE (Ontario Centres of Excellence), plain and simple. We could not have afforded to do this without their support," he says. "They were instrumental and they continue to be instrumental."

Canada's commitment to clean energy has also been a big driver for the team.

"We are a country that takes climate change seriously," he says. "There are very few countries in the world that have this level of commitment to reducing emissions, and that's why we believe that our technology has a chance to blossom here."

This is one of several reasons that CERT specifically chose the natural gas stream in Alberta for round three of the XPRIZE. CERT wants to keep its efforts here in Canada, says De Luna, because of the energy mix and support, and because the team wants to see the Canadian clean tech sector grow and become a world leader.

"We couldn't do this anywhere else," he says. And they wouldn't want to.

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June 28, 2018

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