It’s a Good Thing: Homegrown carbon capture technology is back in the spotlight

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New U.S. leadership and coordinated global climate goals bode well for Burnaby-based Svante

As Joe Biden took office on January 20, many hoped that Inauguration Day represented a pivot point for the U.S.—and, indeed, the world—when it comes to climate change. Biden was VP in the Obama administration, which was a key signatory to the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement and committed to domestic improvements in everything from fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles to carbon pollution standards for power plants.

But then Donald Trump happened—and the U.S. went from playing a leading role in fighting climate change to becoming the loudest voice for denialism. Biden’s ambitious climate plan aims to double back to the Obama years—re-entering the Paris accord, for one—while achieving a “100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050.” Key to achieving Net Zero for the new president is boosting federal investments and tax incentives for carbon dioxide capture, use and storage (CCUS).

Carbon capture doesn’t get “two green thumbs up” from a lot of environmentalists, since it acknowledges a continuing role for a carbon-based economy for decades to come. But as Brett Henkel, co-founder of Burnaby-based Svante, puts it, not every use of carbon is replaceable by renewable resources. Power plants? For sure. Automobiles? Absolutely.

“But if you’re a refinery and you need to keep cracking oil, how are you going to do it? You need to heat up oil by burning fossil fuels,” says Henkel, whose 14-year-old company sells a proprietary solid adsorption technology to big industrial clients that captures their flue gas emissions and recently made the Global Cleantech 100 list. “Same with cement, plastics, steel and all these other industries. Do we stop producing plastics? Can anybody imagine a life without steel?”

Henkel co-founded Inventys—the name of the company until October 2019—in 2007. (The three other founders, André Boulet, Soheil Khiavi and Darryl Wolanski, are no longer with Svante.) He’d been working at another cleantech pioneer, QuestAir Technologies, at the time, but the maker of hydrogen gas purification technology was in the process of being broken up and sold off. Henkel needed an exit plan. One day his friend James Miller, a local angel investor and co-founder of Vancouver biotech firm QLT, approached Henkel with a business proposal.

“Jim said, ‘Do you have any ideas for a new company that is connected to CO2 capture? Because that’s going to be big in the future,'” recalls Henkel, a Golden, B.C., native who graduated from UVic with a BSc in physics and a BEng in mechanical engineering. Miller helped Henkel get Svante off the ground, providing the first round of financing, plus support as a mentor. Another early mentor was Jonathan Wilkinson, CEO of QuestAir from 2002-08 and now Canada’s minister of environment and climate change.

Svante’s approach to carbon capture has several key advantages, according to Henkel: “Our system is much smaller, more efficient and doesn’t employ liquid chemicals, unlike the incumbent technology.” Still, he admits, it remains a tough economic sell. “I get the messaging all the time: Well, carbon capture hasn’t really dropped in cost or become viable. But what    other industry—when there is no business case, and in the absence of a regulatory framework—can get enough investment and momentum behind it to make big strides?”

That regulatory framework is slowly, haltingly, coming into place—with a federal carbon tax (or provincial equivalents) being the law of the land since 2019, and new climate accountability legislation introduced this past November—formally committing Canada to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That, combined with the Biden pledge of the same target and timeframe, gives Henkel hope that his technology, now part of demonstration projects across North America, will see widespread deployment in under a decade.

“As companies get more and more serious about Net Zero, CO2 capture keeps on floating to the top of solutions,” he says. “Because, frankly, there’s no other easy way of doing it.” 

What’s in Store

Capturing carbon is half the battle; the other half is what to do with the CO2. If the geology allows–say, in rural Alberta–captured carbon is then sequestered deep beneath the Earth’s surface. But in more developed locales like the Lower Mainland, that’s not possible.

Svante has launched a pilot partnership with cement manufacturer LafargeHolcim to capture the CO2 coming out of Lafarge’s Richmond plant and reinject it into the concrete. “Using CO2 has a bunch of advantages,” says Svante co-founder Brett Henkel. “Curing concrete with CO2 actually increases the strength of concrete and reduces the amount of water that’s used in the process.”

“If we can show that this can be done in Richmond, then it could be done at cement plants around the world.”