Applied Research in Action: Three Technologies Helping Canada Meet its Climate Goals
In February of 2021, the Government of Canada convened a group of experts from across the country to advise on how Canada can reach its commitment to being a net-zero economy by 2050. This led to a number of new initiatives including an investment of $3 billion into a Net-Zero Accelerator Fund, as well as the launch of a Net-Zero Challenge, a voluntary initiative to encourage Canadian companies and large industrial emitters to develop plans to transition operations to net-zero by 2050.
During the federal election in September 2021, the Liberal government refocused its attention on Canada’s largest emitter: the oil and gas sector. The party’s climate policy centerpiece was to cap and limit emissions from the oil and gas sector by setting five-year targets that need to be met in order to reach Canada’s goal. The Liberals also committed to radically reducing methane reductions by at least 75% by the end of the decade. The election, which resulted in a Liberal win, showed that Canadians take climate change seriously and were willing to get behind Trudeau’s plan.
While these pledges are ambitious, they also present significant opportunities to create clean and green jobs, galvanize new areas of research, and spur innovation in Canada’s oil and gas sector.
While these pledges are ambitious, they also present significant opportunities to create clean and green jobs, galvanize new areas of research, and spur innovation in Canada’s oil and gas sector. Organizations like the Clean Resource Innovation Network, Emissions Reduction Alberta, Alberta Innovates and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance are all working to foster these opportunities in Alberta and Canada.
People all across Canada, including those working in the country’s energy sector, have been and will continue to take concrete steps to mitigate the country’s impact on global greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, seventy-five percent of clean energy investments in Canada come from the oil and gas industry, spawning startups, patents, research, technologies and innovations.
In this three-part article, we tell the story of three of those technologies, which have or are set to make a considerable impact on Canada’s climate targets—for the better.
Tracking Emissions from the Sky
Greenhouse gas emissions have become a common parlance in Canadian and international communities, often cropping up in conversations with friends and family, and absolutely critical to our conversations about the energy transition. But what do they actually consist of?
The most common greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, representing 80% of emissions. This is followed by methane (10%), nitrous oxide (7%) and fluorinated gases (3%). That second element, methane, is the main component of natural gas that we use to heat our homes and power our factories. According to the Government of Canada, methane is a “potent greenhouse gas and climate pollutant, responsible for about 25% of the human-caused global warming that we experience today.” That is because methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and unfortunately, the oil and gas sector is by far the biggest emitter of methane.
It was with this in mind that aerospace engineer Stephane Germain launched his company, GHGSat, of which he is the CEO, Founder and President. In partnership with COSIA, the Montreal-based company benefited from early investments from COSIA member Suncor, as well as Hydro-Québec. Germain sought to combine his passion for commercializing satellite technology and environmental issues. GHGSat successfully launched a satellite in 2016 that can accurately track greenhouse gas emissions, and methane in particular, from the Earth’s orbit.
GHGSat developed the first sensor for small satellites that can detect methane (CH4) emissions and locate individual sources of CH4 from around 500 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.
GHGSat’s first satellite is named Claire, after the newborn daughter of one of the company’s engineers, and is the world’s first high-resolution emission monitoring satellite. GHGSat developed the first sensor for small satellites that can detect methane (CH4) emissions and locate individual sources of CH4 from around 500 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. The launch of the satellite is considered a huge leap forward in global emissions monitoring technology innovation. And, it has more than proven its worth.
GHGSat has been used to monitor Canada’s emissions, but has also detected emissions from over 2,000 sites worldwide. In 2019, while flying over Turkmenistan, Claire detected greenhouse gas emissions coming from a mud volcano, but noticed something unexpected: an enormous cloud of methane coming from south of the volcano’s peak. Germain and his team examined the high-definition images coming from Claire, and found that a large pipeline being operated in a gas facility had leaky equipment, spewing methane into the universe. Since 2016, Claire has detected emissions from over 2,000 sites worldwide.
GHGSat, in the hopes of becoming a global leader in greenhouse emissions tracking, has since launched two new satellites: Iris, in 2020, and Hugo in January of 2021.
Repurposing Carbon for Concrete
Did you know that the buildings that occupy our cities, neighbourhoods and financial districts contribute to nearly 40% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions? Building operations alone are responsible for 28%, while building materials such as concrete are responsible for about 11% annually.
While this figure seems shocking, it is only likely to grow as the world’s building stock is expected to double by 2060 to meet the demands of a growing population.
The carbon in our buildings is known as “embodied carbon,” which consists of all the greenhouse gas emissions associated with building construction, including those that go into transporting, manufacturing and installing building materials, as well as the operational and end-of-life emissions associated with those materials. Taking all of this into account makes tracking the total carbon output of the construction industry incredibly difficult, but however it is tracked, there is no doubt that the carbon used in our building needs to be reduced.
In 2021, COSIA launched the first NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition, a global initiative operated by the XPRIZE Foundation, designed to accelerate new technologies aimed at converting CO2 emissions into valuable and usable products. The winning team had to demonstrate how it could convert the most CO2 into products with the highest value, while minimizing the CO2 footprint, land use, water use and energy use. The winner was CarbonCure Technologies, a Nova Scotia-based carbon dioxide removal company that has developed an easy-to-adopt technology that enables concrete producers to use captured carbon dioxide to produce low-carbon concrete mixes.
Concrete is the most popular building material on the planet. If it were a country, it would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions behind China and the United States.
Concrete is the most popular building material on the planet. If it were a country, it would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions behind China and the United States. CarbonCure Technologies is on a mission to “make concrete a climate solution” rather than a climate detriment, with the hope of reducing embodied carbon in the built environment by 500 million tonnes annually by 2050.
Opening the Door to Carbon Fibre Opportunities
The future of the planet depends on Canadian innovators to make the most of what is available to them and to mitigate the catastrophic impacts of carbon emissions globally. Canadians have proven time and time again that they have the capacity, creativity and drive to make a significant dent in greenhouse gases in our country and worldwide. To spur more of these opportunities for Canadian innovators, Alberta Innovates launched its Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge.
Carbon fibres are 5 to 10 micrometers in diameter and are composed of carbon atoms. Compared to other fibres, they are stiffer, stronger—five times stronger than steel—and have a high temperature tolerance and chemical resistance. Carbon fibre, also known as graphite fibre, is an ideal manufacturing material, which is being used by manufacturers in aerospace, mobility, defense and civil engineering in a myriad of creative ways. For example, these composites have the power to reduce passenger car weight by fifty percent, which would greatly improve fuel efficiency.
The Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge was launched by Alberta Innovates to accelerate the development of pathways for large-scale production of carbon fibre from Alberta’s bitumen. Crude bitumen production (mined and in situ) in Alberta totalled 2.8 million barrels per day in 2017, and Alberta Innovates estimates that the commercial markets for non-combustion products from bitumen could quadruple the current value of the province’s bitumen output.
Researchers at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, among others from around the world, are hard at work to win the Grand Challenge and bring these concepts from academia into the commercial world.
These are only three of the technologies that have been spurred by the significant investments of Canada’s energy sector. As the Liberal government continues its push against omitting industries like oil and gas, it is likely that Canada will witness new emissions-reducing technologies in the decades ahead.