Energy Innovation Brief
Issue 36 | January 2024
In Western Canada and around the world, the energy sector is rapidly transforming to one that promises to be cleaner, greener and more efficient. Each month, the Canada West Foundation’s Energy Innovation Brief brings you stories about technology innovations happening across the industry – in oil and gas, renewables, energy storage and transmission. If you have an idea for a story, email us at: .
Smart and Circular Energy
Waste has been called “value in the wrong place.” For the first EIB of 2024, we feature companies in the energy space that have found unusual and productive ways to turn what would otherwise have been burdensome trash into valuable treasure.
01| Expander Energy – Making clean fuel from agricultural and forestry waste
02| Recover – Extracting fuel from drill cuttings
03| Moltex – Recycling spent nuclear fuel
04| Excir – Recovering critical minerals and metals from E-waste
05| Fish, ceramics and a cow manure propelled rocket
06| The infrastructure to make it all work
Expander Energy – Making clean fuel from waste
Alberta-based Expander Energy is helping close the circularity gap by creating technology to produce drop-in renewable fuels for large vehicles, marine, rail and jet aircraft – with a triple environmental benefit.
Expander’s technology uses waste streams as feedstock, such as forestry waste, agricultural waste, urban wood waste and municipal solid waste. This diverts these materials from landfills, which is a key circularity imperative. Expander’s approach also avoids many of the problems common to biofuels and renewable fuels that use “virgin” feedstocks: displacement of food production, creation of new monocultures or causing harm to ecosystems. And finally, the product helps decarbonize fuel usage from heavy transport, which has few options for reducing emissions other than renewable fuels.
One of Expander’s early projects in Western Canada is a partnership with Rocky Mountain Clean Fuels, which will see Rocky Mountain’s Carseland facility convert construction wood waste into renewable synthetic diesel. The company also recently closed a deal with Calgary-based Cielo Waste Solutions, a waste-to-fuel environmental technology company, to license Expander’s technology in North America, including an exclusive license in the U.S. for converting creosote and treated wood waste into fuel.
Recover – Muck into megawatts
Drilling fluid, a lubricant in oil and gas well drilling processes, contains oil, brine, emulsifiers, wetting agents, clay, lime and other chemicals. But once drilling is complete, the drilling waste is contaminated and must be placed in a Class II landfill or reserve pit, which take up space, release greenhouse gases, and can potentially leak dangerous chemicals.
Recover uses this waste as feedstock to produce low-sulfur diesel that can be used as a drilling fluid component, a low sulfur fuel oil, or a refinery feedstock for diesel production. The remainder of the waste is produced as a dry, granular product that can be used as a stabilization material in industrial landfills. Recover estimates that their technology has so far resulted in the avoidance of over 100,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, and the recovery of nearly 70,000 tonnes of waste.
Moltex – Recycling spent nuclear fuel
Storing nuclear waste is a major commitment: it can take thousands of years before its radioactivity decays to that of the originally mined ore. However, this waste also represents an opportunity, as conventional nuclear reactors use less than 10 per cent of the fuel’s potential energy.
Moltex Energy Canada is solving that problem by building a technology that runs on spent nuclear fuel, using what they call a “Waste to Stable Salt” (WATSS) process. This process extracts additional energy from the part of spent fuel that is most radioactive and long-lived. Waste produced through Moltex’s process includes a small volume of highly radioactive but short–lived fluoride salt, sheathing material, depleted uranium which can be safely stored, and reactor fuel which can be recycled indefinitely.
Moltex has been selected by NB Power to progress development of its reactor technology in Point Lepreau, New Brunswick, and is currently working through the license and approval process and hopes to begin operations in the early 2030s. Moltex’s reactor will be able to utilize waste from CANDU facilities, including New Brunswick’s own CANDU reactor at Point Lapreau.
Excir – Recovering minerals and metals from e-waste
Minerals and metals have a key role to play in the green energy transition as they are essential for cars, solar panels and a myriad of other technologies. However, these resources are becoming increasingly scarce both because of mounting demand and geopolitical jockeying for control over supply. At the same time, many of these minerals are trapped in waste products.
Enter Excir, yet another Calgary-based company developing smart and circular technology. Excir has developed a low-energy, low-emissions, low-waste process for extracting gold, palladium and platinum from electronic waste and catalytic converters, allowing for these valuable substances to be reused. This has led to a partnership with the British Royal Mint to recover gold from the UK’s e-waste and produce sustainably-sourced coins and jewelry. While Excir isn’t the first or only company to extract metals from e-waste, it is more efficient than most. Not only does it recover around 99 per cent of the materials, its room-temperature, rapid process is far more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than its competitors.
Fish, ceramics and a cow manure propelled rocket
During our research, we found dozens of other companies and projects that use innovation to turn waste into wealth. Although not focused on energy directly, here’s a few that we wanted to highlight because they are extremely effective, were born in Western Canada, or are just kind of funny.
- Iceland’s 100% Fish project has created a hub that brings together producers, researchers and innovators to find ways to use virtually all of Iceland’s fish capture. Companies are turning heads, guts, tails, skin and more into products ranging from supplements to skin grafts. As a result, more than 95 per cent of each cod is now utilized, up from 40 per cent in 2003.
- Scientists at the University of Regina have devised a method of making ceramsite (a ceramic-like substance) from sewer sludge. This substance can then be used to extract phosphorus (which causes algae bloom) from water – and the phosphorus can then be used as landscaping mulch. Three diverted waste streams for the price of one!
- Interstellar Technology Inc., a Japan-based startup, is developing a rocket powered by cow manure.
The infrastructure to make it all work
Circularity requires both planning and collaboration, which involves designing products with circularity in mind, knowing what waste is available where, or even just knowing the composition and properties of waste products. Supporting infrastructure can make all of that easier—which is what these organizations focus on.
- Organizations such as Circular Economy Leadership Canada and the Circular Innovation Council are leading the charge in Canada, convening national discussions and exploring new ways to divert waste.
- The Excess Material Exchange is a digital marketplace in the Netherlands that matches companies with waste streams to other companies who can make use of that waste.
- Several organizations have focused on product materials labelling: Luxembourg is supporting the development of standardized ‘Product Circularity Data Sheets”, and the European Commission has released new regulation that will require all batteries to have a ‘passport’ that provides information about the battery’s full supply chain.
All that is gold does not glitter. Sometimes it sloshes, requires a hazmat suit, or smells strongly of fish. Whatever form it takes, circular innovation promotes both sustainability and profitability. The examples reviewed are just the start of the innovations we will we see in the world and in Western Canada over the coming decades.
This Energy Innovation Brief was compiled by Ryan Workman and Marla Orenstein. If you like what you see, subscribe to our mailing list and share with a friend. If you have any interesting stories for future editions, please send them to .
Images: UnSplash and iStock