Halifax—The term “carbon capture and storage” inevitably conjures of machines slowly pumping emissions into deep mines, never to be seen again.
Indeed, that was the initial strategy behind the nascent carbon mitigation technique. And while the technology has evolved greatly over the last several years, it’s safe to say few would associate it with building construction.
That is, until now.
Permanent sequestration of CO2 gas is taking place at concrete plants around North America, thanks to the technology of innovative Maritimes company CarbonCure.
Its patented system pumps the greenhouse gas into concrete blocks during the production process, sequestering it forever in embedded limestone.
It’s little wonder that in 2013, CarbonCure was chosen as one of BuildingGreen.com’s Top 10 Green Building Products.
CarbonCure was founded by CEO Robert Niven in 2007. Before that point, Niven had studied chemistry and engineering, and was looking at incorporating CO2 in concrete to make it stronger.
He quickly realized that the idea had commercial value.
“The chemistry has actually been well understood since 1940,” Niven says.
“Since then, CO2 has been used to form a protective layer around the outside of masonry products to protect against freeze/thaw issues and efflorescence. We are now introducing CO2 earlier on in the production process, which allows us to absorb more CO2 and increase the strength of the product.”
The nature of CarbonCure’s relationship with their clients is simple and elegant. CarbonCure licenses its patented technology and installs it in a client’s concrete manufacturing plant with very little upfront cost. The client purchases the food-grade purified CO2 from third-party suppliers like Air Liquide or Praxair that have captured the gas from industrial emitters.
Firms using CarbonCure technology pay the Halifax company a royalty on all products produced with it.
“This approach offers producers a low-risk strategy to introduce a new technology into their plants, and it’s helping us to quickly scale up the technology across North America,” says Niven.
CarbonCure also provides concrete manufacturers with support to accelerate market adoption of their new environmentally-friendly and stronger building blocks.
In order to understand how the CarbonCure system works, we must take a look at the entire concrete production process. It starts with making cement, concrete’s active ingredient.
To make cement, limestone (calcium carbonate) is heated to extremely high temperatures. A byproduct of this process is calcium oxide.
When concrete is being made, the cement is mixed with ingredients such as aggregate, admixture, sand and water. “When we add the CO2 with CarbonCure technology, it actually seeks out the calcium oxide in the cement and bonds to it, to reform limestone,” Niven explains. “So the CO2 becomes permanently embedded in the block as solid limestone.”
Installation and use
Dave Carter, executive vice president at Brampton Brick Ltd., says that commissioning CarbonCure equipment is “pretty straightforward.” Brampton Brick has installed CarbonCure tech at its Hillsdale and Brampton facilities.
“It simply attaches to existing equipment, injecting the CO2 into the production process without disruption,” Carter says. “Concrete is already one of the most sustainable building materials on the planet with a long lifespan and low environmental impact.”
“[We’re] always searching for ways to reduce our environmental impact by reducing waste and energy while improving the quality of our products. The appeal of CarbonCure is that it’s simple, effective and relatively low-cost with a positive impact on quality, making it feasible to expand the technology into other products.”
To date, none of CarbonCure’s customers have sold carbon credits, though the CO2 sequestration involved in the process makes carbon credits a possibility.
“Today, there isn’t a strong market for carbon credits, but we hope that this will change,” Niven notes. “Depending on the size of the plant, the producer may not want to go through the effort to verify, register and sell the carbon credits. In these situations, CarbonCure has the option to aggregate the offsets from many producers, which will make the process easier.”
CarbonCure now has six manufacturing partners across North America, including one in Nova Scotia and two in Ontario, with another producer coming online in B.C. later this year. “In the U.S., we have four licensees, including the largest manufacturer in the country,” says Niven.
When asked about what it was like to ‘set up shop’ on Canada’s east coast, Niven has nothing but good things to say.
“[It’s] an ideal place to start a business for a lot of reasons,” he declares. “Canada as a market is a great testing ground for new products and ideas, and Nova Scotia is no exception. Shaw Brick – our first customer – was really generous with their time and facilities when we were first starting out.”
Niven adds that in terms of finding talent and employees, “Some of the smartest people in Canada come out of the local universities in Halifax [and] we think this talent pool is one of the best kept secrets for companies looking to recruit. Our team is young, smart, energetic and talented, and most of our team members were educated at Maritime institutions.”
Niven also thinks Canada has a “great” cleantech sector. “There are so many companies with real potential, not only to generate a return for their investors but also to have a significant impact on large industries,” he says.
“I think you’ll start to see these companies reach their full potential over the next five years. We’re really fortunate to be a part of the Canadian cleantech community.”
Niven thinks real cleantech success comes when entrepreneurs have funding from private investors and strong industry partnerships.
“Technology needs industry for plant-level validation, and these industries need to see profit from adopting new innovation,” he says. “For cleantech companies, it’s really important for the economics to work, in addition to having environmental benefits.”