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
01| E3-Imperial partnership could mark the start of a new lithium extraction industry
02| Saskatchewan’s first utility-scale battery electric storage system
03| Researchers give COVID PPE a second life … as cement
04| Spoiled crops create new energy
05| Steel is out, hemp rebar is in
06| One man’s trash is another man’s energy
E3-Imperial partnership could mark the start of a new lithium extraction industry
Imperial Oil and E3 Lithium (previously E3 Metals Corp.) have signed an agreement to partner on E3’s “Clearwater project,” a unique lithium extraction project in Alberta’s Leduc oilfield. The project will extract lithium-rich brine from below the oilfield, isolate the lithium using E3’s proprietary Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technology, and then reinject the brine back into the aquifer. The process can recover over 90 per cent of the lithium in the brine and will produce a high-grade product suitable for use in battery manufacturing. With the growing demand for electric vehicles and batteries to support them, this project has the potential to breathe new life into one of Alberta’s oldest oilfields—first discovered by Imperial in 1947. As part of the new partnership, Imperial has made a $6.35 million investment into E3 and will provide the company with technical and development support throughout the project—putting its deep understanding of the reservoir to use in a new capacity.
In addition to its potential to increase the value of depleted oilfields, the DLE technology also promises to offer substantial ESG benefits when compared to solid mineral mining or other brine extraction methods. The use of wellbores significantly reduces the land footprint of the operation compared to open pit mining and the closed loop brine reinjection process requires no freshwater. The process also removes the need for evaporation and tailings ponds. While the process has not yet been proven at scale, if successful this project could kickstart a new lithium extraction industry in Alberta.
Saskatchewan’s first utility-scale battery electric storage system
SaskPower has greenlit the construction of a $26 million battery storage system in Regina. The project will be the first of its kind for the province and will provide 20 MWh of storage capacity. The system will consist of two 10 MW batteries supplied by On Power, a Quebec-based power solutions provider. Combined, the two batteries will be able to store enough energy to power 20,000 homes for one hour. Construction on some elements of the project is already underway, and SaskPower expects the facility to be fully operational by May 2023.
The province currently generates roughly 70 per cent of its power from fossil fuel sources but has plans to bring on an additional 685 MW of wind and 60 MW of solar generation in the coming years—more than doubling its current wind and solar capacity. With the addition of more intermittent renewables, more projects like this will be required to help balance spikes in supply and demand. While just one hour of storage for 20,000 homes may not sound like a lot, this project will give SaskPower a chance to gain some experience in using batteries as part of a more decarbonized—but still reliable—grid.
Researchers give COVID PPE a second life … as cement
The massive quantity of personal protective equipment (PPE) used during the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it an enormous waste problem. Worldwide, over 52 billion disposable masks were produced in 2020. In Metro Vancouver alone, half a billion PPE items were disposed of in landfills in that same year. And these items don’t biodegrade easily—masks take over 450 years to decompose naturally.
Mask-wearing is likely to be around for a while; fortunately, a number of researchers are working on inexpensive and greener alternatives to traditional disposal methods.
Washington State University has found a way to use disposable masks to reinforce concrete. The university’s research team broke down used polypropylene medical masks into microfibers and pretreated the fibres with graphene oxide before mixing them into cement as a strengthening agent. When compared to traditional cement, compression strength was slightly decreased (by about three per cent); however, tensile strength increased by 47 per cent. The researchers believe that fibres from the masks help dissipate the fracture energy that contributes to tiny cracks in the concrete. They hope the fibre reinforcement could help protect the concrete from frost damage and from de-icing chemicals used on roadways. This innovation is still far from practical application, but it demonstrates the growth of research in the circular economy, which aims to turn problematic waste streams into valuable inputs.
If you would rather turn your masks into energy, a team from Swansea University in Wales has done just that. Through a process called photoreforming, the researchers used sunlight and nanostructured semiconductors at ambient temperatures to break down masks and destroy viral pathogens at the same time. Byproducts produced in the reaction include hydrogen as well as other stock laboratory chemicals. Not only does this innovation provide an alternative to incineration, but it also produces usable hydrogen fuel. The Swansea University team had previously been developing technology to break down plastics into hydrogen for energy generation but switched their focus to medical PPE at the beginning of the pandemic.
Spoiled crops create new energy
When you think about wheat you probably think about food; but what happens to produce that lacks the quality required to make it onto your plate? Green Impact Partners—a Vancouver-based renewable natural gas company—has a solution. The company has begun the development of a billion-dollar processing plant in southeast Calgary that will be used to turn wheat which does not meet the minimum standards for human consumption into energy products including ethanol and renewable natural gas, as well as high-quality livestock feed.
This project is a triple win from a decarbonization perspective. First, the plant is expected to produce 300 million litres of biofuel a year—an almost 18 per cent increase to Canada’s current production—as well as 3.5 million MMBtu of renewable natural gas. Second, the cattle feed created is expected to be of a high grade that will reduce the methane produced by the livestock during digestion. And finally, the plant itself will be the largest carbon-negative energy facility in North America. The project will also create important economic benefits for the agricultural community by providing income for farmers who might otherwise have to write off or turn to insurance for unusable crops.
Steel is out, hemp rebar is in
Traditional steel rebar is found in almost every building, from houses to skyscrapers. Because rebar provides the tensile strength that concrete lacks, it has been critical to ensuring buildings’ structural integrity. But steel rebar also has problems. For one, steelmaking is extremely carbon-intensive. For another, steel is susceptible to moisture that rusts and corrodes the rebar and can lead to premature structural collapses.
Researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in the U.S. have invented hemp-based rebar that can circumvent these problems while still offering similar strength characteristics to that of steel. The rebar is made by pulling plastic and rope made from hemp fibres through a heated die to create a solid rebar shape. The machine that makes the rebar can then cut and form it into custom shapes and sizes—and all on-site and on-demand.
Compared to steel, the creation of hemp rebar requires far less energy and could even reduce emissions through the hemp plant’s ability to capture carbon twice as efficiently as trees. Hemp rebar may also extend building longevity, which also carries emissions reduction and structural benefits. Who would have thought a fibre most often associated with rope could be the future of environmentally friendly building materials?
One man’s trash is another man’s energy
Earlier this month, FortisBC announced its newest renewable natural gas (RNG) project in partnership with the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George, B.C. When operational in 2024, the project will produce approximately 90 terajoules of energy annually in the form of gas captured from the Foothills Boulevard Regional Landfill. That’s enough to provide gas to roughly 1,000 homes per year.
Unlike traditional natural gas, RNG is created when bacteria digest organic matter and produce methane which is then captured, upgraded and distributed. Despite different production methods, RNG and traditional natural gas are chemically identical and can be used in the same applications, including heating, cooking and power generation. And because the captured gas would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, RNG is considered a carbon-neutral fuel.
RNG forms a major pillar of FortisBC’s plans to cut customer emissions. The company aims to source 15 per cent of its gas from RNG projects by 2030, and 75 per cent by 2050. The Foothills Boulevard Regional Landfill project is just one of over a dozen RNG projects Fortis is planning including other landfills, water treatment plants, and agricultural and food waste projects. As society looks for ways to decarbonize, RNG’s ability to be used by existing infrastructure and remain carbon neutral makes it a valuable resource.
The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Brendan Cooke and Marla Orenstein. This month’s edition features contributions by Brendan Cooke, Connor Watrych and Jasleen Bahia. 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 .