Burnaby firm looking to clean up in floundering carbon capture market

Suncor Energy invests in Inventys Thermal Technologies, which claims it can make carbon capture economically viable

Just when the prospects for carbon capture and storage were beginning to look gloomy in Western Canada, the world’s leaders created a major new market for the technology with the stroke of a pen in Durban.

And that’s good news for Inventys Thermal Technologies, which – despite a recent vote of confidence from Suncor Energy (TSX:SU) – was seeing a worrisome retreat from the technology in Albera.

After committing roughly $1.6 billion to carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects, Alberta Premier Alison Redford announced in mid-November that her government plans to redirect climate action funds to other clean-energy initiatives.

As a result, a carbon capture retrofit of the Keephills 3 coal-fired power plant in Wabamun, Alberta, is now in question.

It’s not just that CCS is viewed – at best – as a stop-gap measure, in which CO2 is swept under the carpet, and – at worst – as an approach that could be dangerous because its long-term consequences are unknown.

The bigger barrier thus far to CCS has been cost.

Sucking CO2 out of smokestacks is expensive – about $80 per tonne. Inventys claims it can do it for $15 per tonne – a claim that has companies like Suncor interested.

Inventys president and CEO Andre Boulet said two key advantages of his company’s technology are its lower operating costs and its size.

“It has a very small footprint.”

Boulet, who has degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering, worked in technology development for QuestAir Technologies before founding Inventys in 2007 with some private equity and federal funding from the industrial research assistance program.

Boulet admits his company’s claims have been met with some skepticism.

“We do get a lot of pushback on that, because people are incredulous that it could be so cheap,” Boulet said.

But he points to a study by Process Design Center – a Dutch consulting firm that specializes in energy and CO2 benchmarking – that Suncor and several other energy companies commissioned and which Boulet said has confirmed Inventys’ estimates.

As a result, Suncor recently agreed to fund a pilot plant in Burnaby that will test the system.

“We see this as a promising technology,” said Suncor spokeswoman Sneh Seetal.

But she added that Suncor has no plans to test the technology at any of its facilities.

The current approach to capturing CO2 from smokestack gas is based on absorbent chemical solvents, which are then boiled to obtain the CO2.

Inventys uses adsorption (not to be confused with absorption): the capturing of gases or liquids on a solid surface. Its patented VeloxoTherm process uses a honeycomb-shaped matrix of adsorbents that attracts CO2 molecules in gases.

“It’s almost like static cling,” Boulet said.

Steam is used to heat adsorbents to recover the CO2. The temperature needed to recover the CO2 is lower than in conventional approaches, Boulet said, so energy costs are lower.

Once recovered, the CO2 is compressed into a liquid and then pumped into the ground either for sequestration or for increasing oil recovery.

In the latter case, CO2 is pumped into depleted wells to force residual oil from reservoirs. Boulet said his company’s biggest potential market is in oil recovery, not sequestering.

“In Alberta, it’s an opportunity – over the course of many, many years – to produce an additional three billion barrels of oil,” he said.

While the push to reduce greenhouse gases comes from scientists and environmentalists, some environmentalists such as David Suzuki and Greenpeace don’t support CCS as a way to reduce industrial GHGs.

They say too little is known about the long-term consequences of storing CO2 underground. Sequestered CO2 can be expected to leak at 2% a year, according to some estimates, and sudden large releases could occur as a result of seismic activity.

Environmentalists also argue that sequestering carbon only defers CO2 releases for future generations, because it will eventually seep out of the ground and into the atmosphere.

Ultimately, they also fear that governments eager to be seen to be reducing their GHGs will invest in a stop-gap measure, when the money would be better spent on renewable energy innovations that actually reduce or eliminate GHGs.

In 2009, Ottawa earmarked $1 billion for its Clean Energy Fund, $466 million of which went to three large-scale CCS projects in Alberta.

In a policy brief in 2009, the University of British Columbia’s Institute of European Studies stated that the Canadian government’s “enthusiasm” for CCS was based on Canada’s abundance of coal, oil and gas. The only way Canada can exploit those resources, while still meeting GHG reduction targets, may be to bury the CO2 those energy sectors produce.

Mark Jaccard, professor of environmental economics at Simon Fraser University’s school of resource and environmental management, believes CCS is a practical interim measure for reducing industrial carbon emissions.

“People need to understand just how little headway rich countries like us have made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he told Business in Vancouver.

“In this urgent situation, we cannot turn our backs on innovations like carbon capture and storage.”

Just last week, world leaders in Durban agreed and formally approved CCS as a clean-energy development mechanism. •