Cleaning Up

A Canadian cleantech company is helping support the extraction industry’s efforts to be more sustainable

By Stephan Boissonneault

As the debate for the best way to produce Canadian energy continues, a company like Fort William, Ontario’s Carbonix is smack dab in the middle. Carbonix is an Indigenous cleantech outfit that has developed a proprietary, environmentally sustainable, and disruptive process to reuse raw materials—such as petroleum coke, asphaltenes, or bottom boiler ash—to capture contaminants from industrial waste sites. The company has been flying under the radar for almost a decade, but as the national conversation turns to renewable and alternative energy sources, all eyes are on Carbonix.

“Our ethos is that we recognize that the extraction industry in Canada—that being oilsands, oil and gas, hard rock mining, and even forestry—is the backbone of this country’s GDP,” says president and chief executive officer, Paul Pede. “We support those efforts, but we also support them in their efforts to be more sustainable and perhaps help them with their environmental challenges, typically found in anything related to their tailings.”

Tailings are essentially the bits left over after the extraction process. In regards to the oil sands in Alberta, these are ponds made up of water, sand, and residual bitumen that emit methane and greenhouse gases. Many mining industries also have tailings ponds. In 2017, the Calgary Herald reported that Alberta’s tailings ponds covered 220 square kilometres—large enough to be seen from space.

“The other industries, such as forestry or pulp and paper, they have tremendous amounts of bottom boiler ash. Bottom boiler ash essentially looks like a lump of charcoal. That’s abundantly produced on an annual basis and that ends up in landfills,” Pede says.

Carbonix’s goal is to help reclaim the tailings landscape, and filter the content of the ponds before it is released into natural environments, groundwater for example. To do use, they construct a chemical compound called activated carbon.

“There might be a particular contaminant of concern in the tailings of a resource extraction industry, call it a mining operation, that needs to be removed, before that water can be released back to the natural environment,” Pede says. “Think or your home water filter. That is predominantly an activated carbon. You put the water in the top and it filters out various impurities. That is what we do.”

The Carbonix process can be applied to a liquid or the air. It can even be used to capture gold particles hiding in industrial waste. Currently, the process is in the pilot stage, but they have big plans.

So how does it actually work? Well, that’s where it gets a little tricky, as Pede and his company’s process is proprietary and therefore under lock and key.

“We’re involved in what we refer to as the dosing and deployment for these companies,” he says. “We’re bound by some of these organizations and how they achieve their tasks and so much of what we do, we don’t make public.”

Still, Pede can give an example of the application. Let’s say there is a contaminant of concern identified by engineers that is flowing into a pond and that pond flows into the Athabasca River.

“Or maybe it’s already in the pond,” he says. “You might spray the product on or you might deploy it in the air. There are variety of different ways. Our sustainable approach here is that not only do we take a close look at it but use the least amount of costs to purify it, related to labour as well.”

Pede can also give us a less vague description of what happens on a scientific, molecular level.

“Think of it as a molecular level sponge,” Pede says. “So you’re working with pores that are at a billionth of a metre and sometimes you need to create a tailored environment, so that you can best attract those particular contaminants of concern, because there could be other things in that water.”

Creating a tailored environment could be as simple as changing a nitrogen or moving a carbon in the chemistry. The specialized sponge then grabs the target impurity, molecule by molecule, pulling it out of either air or liquid, and then captures it.

The inception of the Carbonix process was around 2010 in terms of research and development. In 2013, Trent University came in as an integral partner. Pede says the company’s decision to remain somewhat silent until now was planned and necessary. This is for a number of reasons, but basically Carbonix wants its work to speak for itself.

The federal government invested $3.1 million into the company last July as part of Natural Resources Canada’s (NRCan) Clean Growth Program, a $155 million fund created to help emerging cleantech scale up and prepare for commercialization.

“You can’t just go from the lab to trying to remediate a multi-hundred hectare tailings pond. So the next evolution is that you go from that bench stage to the piloting stage,” Pede says. “There’s still yet another stage to come, which will be beginning about this time next year, which is demonstration.”

Again, Pede cannot give specifics on all of the companies that will be involved, but Carbonix has forged partnerships with some large oilsand operators such as Suncor. He says the initial facility will more than likely be in the Fort McMurray area with a production capacity of “something on the order of 40 to 50,000 metric tons per year.”

“So you can see how you can’t go from bench to the 40 or 50,000 metric tons per year of production, without scaling up in between. And you don’t do that in a period of a year or two, it takes a number of years,” he says.

Eventually, Pede imagines having another operating facility in Northern Ontario, where many hard rock mining activities take place. Again, Pede says those relationships are confidential, but he says that Carbonix will be working with the province of Ontario.

In Ontario, there are thousands of abandoned mines and some of these abandoned mine sites have very significant environmental issues.

“There is a line item on the province’s financial statements [that came out in 2016] which specifically speaks to a liability cost of these abandoned mine sites related to their environmental challenges. And that line item for Ontario is just about $1.8 billion. And that’s with a B,” Pede says. “Somebody has to be the steward of these abandoned mines and [the province of Ontario] is seeking to reduce that liability. So what we’re doing is demonstrating to them how our products can work.”

This will create job opportunities and, Pede says, long-term investment opportunities as well.

“Keep in mind, some of these tailings still can hold valuable assets by way of mineral or metal. We can then extract these at the same time as extracting the contaminants of concern. The market value of those can then be used to offset the liability costs of the cleanup.”

Pede says there is also a social engagement aspect in the company’s approach as well.

“We wish to engage with the local communities, Indigenous or not, on what we’re doing and how we’re doing our work so they are educated and can make informed decisions,” he says. “At the end of the day a lot of that cleanup work is an opportunity because it tends to go on for long periods of time. We look at those opportunities for long-term employment as well.”

Essentially, Carbonix asks the people living in the affected areas if they want to be part of the reclamation process.

“They might like to see a particular part of a traditional territory be restored back to how it was historically used, whether for gathering, hunting, fishing, or even transport,” he says. “From the Indigenous perspective it’s really about helping restore the earth and create new opportunities for those living around or within those affected areas.”

Some environmentalists may not support Carbonix and its processes, viewing it as a cog in the machine that perpetuates the catastrophic aspects of extractive industries. But Pede sees it as a sustainable approach.

“Look, these industries aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. If the oil sands were gone tomorrow there would be more than 50 years of cleanup, so let’s look at this as an opportunity, rather than something that is so negative,” he says. “That opportunity is that we have the ability from a sustainable level to be able to address these issues head on.”

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