Carbon Creativity: Turning A Problem Into a Solution

An interview with SPARK speaker, Apoorv Sinha

In less than 5 short years, Carbon Upcycling Technologies went from a non-existent company to the youngest CO2 utilization company to start generating commercial revenue. Formed in direct response to ERA’s Grand Challenge, the Calgary-based start-up uses CO2 emissions to enhance everyday materials like concrete, plastics, and batteries. President Apoorv Sinha and his team recognizes the importance of turning carbon, one of the world’s greatest problems, into our best solution. In their short existence, they have identified over 10 different applications across different market sectors. They are also one of four Canadian companies in the finals of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, establishing them as one of the top carbon utilization companies in the world.

In the last year alone, Carbon Upcycling has been accepted into the Repsol Foundation’s Entrepreneur Fund business accelerator, received the Solar Impulse Efficient Solution Label from the Solar Impulse Foundation, and was a finalist in the 76West Clean Energy Challenge. Carbon Upcycling also secured funding and is currently building a 7-tonne per day unit at Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre (ACCTC) that will be commercially supplying product to Burnco for use in local construction projects across Southern Alberta.

We spoke with Apoorv Sinha, founder of Carbon Upcycling, to learn more.

Why are you doing what you are doing?
Our motivation is to turn CO2 green. In the current climate policy around the world, we see that as being a duel responsibility: not just making the green argument, but also an economic argument. That will help people change their behavior. Carbon utilization can mitigate the effects of climate change so that natural events like forest fires that are happening more and more often—and more devastating than they used to be—can be mitigated or remediated. And, at the same time, we can create products that make the building blocks of modern life longer lasting and more effective.

Why focus on carbon?
CO2 is a very stable molecule. There’s a reason why every time we burn something it stabilizes into CO2. Instead of trying to destabilize it and turn it into new chemicals, our approach is to use a chemical absorption technique. It’s a fancy way of saying gluing things onto other things. What we found was that we can take carbon dioxide in various purity levels and from various different sources and combine them with abundantly available materials like graphite. One of the positive learnings is that this technology, this process, is adaptable and can also be used with materials like fly ash, a waste product from thermal generation. To have that flexibility is encouraging. If you are getting a substantial amount of CO2 into your end product,  like 10 to 30 per cent, that can add up quickly when looking at high volume markets.

How beneficial is it to have access to the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre  (ACCTC)?
What’s interesting about this site relative to what we’ve done in the past is that it is one of the few places in the world where carbon will be going right from being produced, all the way down to an end product. The way its structured is, we’ll be getting our plastic additive or concrete additive out from this facility into—potentially —a ready-mix plant or plastic injection molding facility. That’s big.

What is the most interesting finding from your work?
We found that we can take fly ash from coal power plants and improve its performance in concrete such that it actually gives you a better end product. Our trials found we can increase the base strength of concrete by over 35 per cent by using our mix, using the same industry protocols and procedures that are currently used. It’s exciting because the use of fly ash is predominant everywhere; improving the strength can be quite impactful. We can reduce the cement in concrete mix by over 10 to 20 per cent. Just reducing 10 per cent of cement consumption globally would be equivalent to taking almost 29 million cars off the road or planting 35 billion trees.

What comes to mind when you reflect on how this project has progressed?
What we’ve reflected on in the last 6 to 8 months is starting with the end in mind. And, there’s so many variables that it’s impossible. I can’t think of any fantasy world where we would know in 2014 what we know today. When dealing with a fundamental technology, it’s hard to figure out the pieces that have to fall into place before it changes customer behaviour on the ground. To be able to talk to the stakeholders in the supply chain as informed as possible earlier in the development process can be quite useful. That’s always been the struggle of being a bootstrapping start-up: balancing research and development with making the customer aware of what you are doing so you aren’t getting too far offside on what they’ll actually use.

What business development advice do you have for other innovators?
What we are looking at is choosing the path of least resistance. Especially as an entrepreneur and a start-up, you don’t have the resources to control where the wind is going, but you can adjust your sails. Having the customer take ownership and giving us all this intel about where the market is, is very valuable. Then we have to make a conscious decision on whether to allocate a certain per cent of our effort to see if we can come up with a solution to what they identified. No win is too small, and there is no win unless there is market adoption. All the wind and momentum is produced by the customer, and we adjust. From a market perspective, the more we can facilitate collisions, the more likely something will click and technologies will enter the market and make an impact.

What would you change if you could start over?
One of the big lessons we learned is a lot of the perception of what behavior is, is guided by who you are talking to. One of the challenges that we’ve had day-after-day from day one is being out of Calgary and focusing on industries that are not the bread and butter of our city or our province. It creates geographical challenges when talking with customers and trying to make change in their behaviour. Getting a hold of these companies and talking to the right influencers—in concrete, plastics, car manufacturing—has been challenging. We try to go to more conferences and promote our work, but it’s still a work in progress. If I could go back, I’d like to know a billion more people than I know today.

Where do you see Carbon Upcycling in 5 to 10 years?
I sometimes think that is the wrong question to ask. I think the longest we look is two years, sometimes two weeks. Generally speaking, one thing we have to get better at is thinking of the different scenarios. Not saying ‘this is what it is going to be,’ but saying, ‘these are the irons in the fire.’ From our perspective, there are a number of variables and a number of scenarios on how the future could pan out. It’s not us not knowing, it’s us being cognizant of reality.”

Apporv Sinha is a panelist for SPARK 2019’s Disruptive Technologies & Carbon Positive Game Changers: A Mock Pitch Session. Co-designed and facilitated by the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN), this “mock” pitch session will highlight disruptive technologies that will enable oil and gas to be a critical part of a low carbon future.