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:
In this month’s roundup of energy innovation news:
1. Alberta bets big on hydrogen
2. Suncor leverages wastewater treatment technology to fight COVID
3. Mining the ocean floor with marine life-inspired robots
4. UK company creates biofuel from industrial coffee waste
5. Volkswagen embraces an electric vehicle future
6. In the future, airplanes could run on humane manure
Alberta has set its sights on hydrogen – the proclaimed ‘fuel of the future’ – to breathe new life into its struggling economy. On October 6, the government of Alberta released its Natural Gas Vision and Strategy – and with it, made a bold commitment to move the province toward a hydrogen export economy. The government hopes hydrogen can help Alberta capitalize on its existing gas resources and diversify the economy while reducing GHG emissions. While a Hydrogen Roadmap for the province is currently under construction, initial details indicate that the government will throw its support behind partnerships with the federal government and with organizations that can deliver the technologies and commercialization pathways needed for deployment. This likely means building on the work being done currently by the CESAR team, the Alberta Zero-Emissions Truck Electrification Collaboration (AZETEC) project, the Transition Accelerator, the Energy Futures Lab and others. Read the full story here.
Although the idea of hydrogen as a power source has been toyed with for decades, interest in hydrogen – as well as the technology to support its use as a fuel commercially – has taken exponential leaps in the past few years. With Alberta as the second-lowest cost producer of ‘blue hydrogen’ (produced from natural gas using carbon capture and storage) in the world, the Alberta government’s bet has a good chance of paying off. That is, if it can find a way to get the hydrogen out of the land-locked province in the first place. As we have seen with other major fuel transportation projects, that’s not such an easy task.
What do wastewater treatment and the fight against COVID-19 have in common? According to Suncor, a lot. In April 2020, the Calgary-based energy giant announced a partnership with Western University in Ontario to develop at-home COVID antibody testing kits. This came after a realization that the technology Suncor operates to treat wastewater, which involves sequencing bacterial DNA, could be similarly applied to identifying COVID antibodies in human fluid samples. Suncor’s effort is different than other COVID testing methods in that it uses algae – as opposed to mammalian or insect cells – to produce a protein that will be used in the tests. The researchers believe this approach will make the test cheaper and easier to scale. It remains to be seen when the test kits will be available to the public, but it could be within months. Read the full story here.
As COVID-19 enters its second wave in countries around the world, rapid testing kits are likely to become an important part of containing the virus until a vaccine is widely available. Other companies have pivoted towards manufacturing masks and other equipment during the pandemic, but this is a really novel example of how existing technology, resources, and innovation can be repurposed to respond to needs very different from the ones for which they were originally created.
Mining the ocean floor with marine life-inspired robots
At the bottom of the ocean, there’s a mineral jackpot waiting to be captured. In certain parts of the world, the seafloor contains some of the world’s largest untapped quantities of metals – such as copper, nickel and other elements – needed for clean energy technologies. But these materials can’t be easily retrieved without disturbing the seafloor’s fragile ecosystems. One U.S. entrepreneur, Pietro Filaro, may have found a solution by mimicking one of nature’s own creations. Filaro’s Brooklyn-based company, Pliant Energy Systems, specializes in marine robotics. They have developed a stingray-like robot called the ‘Velox’ capable of swimming like a stingray or crawling along the seafloor like a millipede, thanks to a pair of undulating ‘fins’ that use hyperbolic geometry for propulsion. The Velox was originally designed as a power generator, where ocean currents passing the bot would move the fins and generate energy to be stored. But the company realized the potential of using the robot for other purposes.
While the robot is capable of things like coral reef monitoring and ice-rescue, the company is currently working on new algorithms and tools to allow it to pluck potato-sized deposits of rare earth minerals – known as polymetallic nodules — from the ocean floor and bring them to the surface. Read the full story here.
Since the 1970s, mining companies have proposed different technologies for scraping and vacuuming these deposits off the ocean floor, but received significant pushback for potentially causing permanent damage to the delicate ocean ecosystem. Although Pliant Energy Systems’ stingray-like robot won’t be a zero-risk apparatus, it offers a more environmentally friendly way to mine the ocean floor as the demand for clean energy technologies – such as electric car batteries and solar panels – continues to grow.
If you love coffee and clean energy, this story is for you! In 2013, a British architecture student, Arthur Kay, set out to discover if coffee could be used to make biofuel. After confirming his theory that used coffee grounds contained oil, he went on to found his company, bio-bean, which sources coffee waste from cafes and restaurants around the UK and uses it to make two types of fuel. First, oil from the coffee grounds is extracted and blended to make a liquid biofuel, called B20 fuel, that can be mixed into regular diesel fuel. Second, the coffee grounds are dried, decontaminated, and formed into pellets and logs to create a solid fuel to be used in large commercial and industrial-sized boilers. But this isn’t just a good idea: with help from a few strategic partners, bio-bean has made this a commercial reality. In 2017, the company partnered with Shell to incorporate B20 fuel into a number of London’s diesel-powered city buses, a program that is still in place today. Read the full story here.
Around the world, humans consume a lot of coffee – nine billion kilograms per year, in fact. This translates into roughly 10 million tonnes of coffee waste each year, most of which is left to decompose in landfills and which produces methane. By creating fuel from waste, bio-bean can avoid approximately 80 per cent of GHG emissions produced from decomposing coffee waste, while also offsetting fossil fuel use – a combination that goes together as well as cream and sugar!
The German automotive giant Volkswagen is initiating a major transformation towards electric vehicles (EVs). In June 2020, the company announced that it will be pivoting away from fossil-fuelled vehicles and towards hybrids, electric mobility, and digitalization, with plans to invest the equivalent of over C$93 billion into 60 new hybrid and 75 EV models over the next five years. In fact, Volkswagen’s Zwickau factory in Germany produced its last combustion engine car in June – closing the book on its 116-year legacy of producing fossil-fuelled cars. The factory will now begin undergoing a ‘conversion phase,’ which will involve transforming its supply chains to accommodate EV manufacturing and training for its 8,000 employees. By the end of 2020, Volkswagen expects to produce its first EV. Read the full story here.
To aid the transition, Volkswagen has invested $300 million in QuantumScape, a solid-state battery technology company. The company claims that its technology can achieve an 80 per cent battery charge in 15 minutes, compared to several hours under current EV battery technology, with improved thermal management. This is because it uses a solid ceramic material with lithium metal anodes, rather than carbon or graphite anodes, to improve efficiency.
The EV revolution is in full swing, with countries such as Norway, Denmark, Ireland and Scotland having announced future bans on new fossil-fuel vehicles over the next five to twenty years. Volkswagen’s initiative has been strong out of the gates, but it’s not the only car manufacturer embracing an electric future.
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy may have found a solution to lower-carbon jet fuel in the unlikeliest of places: urban sewage plants. These plants are the perfect source for a new promising feedstock: sludge containing human manure. As unappealing as it sounds, human feces, along with animal manure and food waste, contain a family of fatty acids called carboxylic acids, which can be altered through catalytic processes to make a liquid fuel. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy claim that this fuel has seven times the energy density of methane – and this high energy density is something that jet fuel needs in order to help heavy airliners take off. The source material is also cheap and abundant, satisfying two key criteria for a jet fuel replacement. Currently, the DoE is developing the technology that would allow the process to be applied at scale. If their theory is correct the next step will be to build a pilot facility that can make at least 1,000 gallons of fuel for testing in flight. Read the full story here.
This story – and also the bio-bean story above – are ones that we really like highlighting, because they show how enterprising researchers are managing to solve two problems at once: both developing renewable fuel that displaces fossil fuel combustion, and also keeping waste out of landfills where it would otherwise release methane into the atmosphere. Human sewage, animal sewage and food waste all have a long history of being valuable commodities in agriculture; it’s nice to see them being repurposed as a low-carbon energy solution.
The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Jade McLean and Marla Orenstein, with this month’s edition featuring contributions by Sumaiya Talukder. 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 .