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Advancing an understanding of carbon capture technologies and policies

February 16, 2021
UBC MEL in SPE Program Spotlight Series

Sustainable Process Engineering: Carbon Capture Technologies

By Naoko Ellis, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Associate Director at the Clean Energy Research Centre, Faculty Associate of the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, and instructor in the MEL in Sustainable Process Engineering

The climate emergency requires an all-hands-on-deck approach to slow down the pace of global warming.

It is perhaps the ultimate example of a “wicked problem” that can only be solved through a combination of technical solutions, behaviour changes, policy direction and political will.

Professionals who want to make a difference in this area therefore need a unique set of skills to work for positive change.

Carbon capture, conversion and sequestration technologies are one of the many tools we need to ramp up to address global warming. Canada has long played a leading role in this area: a facility in Saskatchewan was one of the world’s first large-scale attempts at carbon capture and sequestration, and a Shell project in Alberta is capturing 1.2 megatonnes of carbon dioxide annually. There are also many small and medium-sized companies pursuing pilot and demonstration projects in this space.

The technologies under development are complex and evolving. In my course Carbon Capture, Conversion and Sequestration Technologies, students explore the technical foundations of these technologies, as well as their economic, policy and regulatory contexts.

What’s exciting is that students are working directly with companies involved in carbon capture, conversion and sequestration.

Building on connections from my own research and the past position as senior research director of the Carbon Capture and Conversion Institute, I reached out to companies active in the field and asked if they wanted to be part of this initiative. Students are working in groups with four different companies, reviewing their technology, completing a techno-economic analysis of its viability and doing a high-level life-cycle analysis. The companies are delighted by the collaboration, as are the students, who have the opportunity to work on real-world problems and their applications.

The hope is that students will emerge from both this course and the Sustainable Process Engineering program with the technical knowledge needed to work in this area, as well as an understanding of the policy and market levers needed to support the widespread adoption of these technologies.

It’s not enough for engineers to be technically adept. They must also have the broader perspective to understand competing points of view and analyze trade-offs, and the advocacy skills to push for policy changes.

In my own research, I’m looking at integrating carbon capture and storage with bioenergy so that it becomes a negative emission technology. Traditionally, biomass has been seen as a carbon neutral solution, but through carbon capture it can result in negative emissions – which will be imperative if we are serious about limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Here at UBC’s Bioenergy Research Demonstration Facility we gasify biomass to generate hot water that is used to heat buildings on campus. If we could capture the carbon dioxide from that process, UBC could reduce its carbon footprint even further, although this would require policy changes on the part of the provincial government in terms of how it accounts for carbon. This is just one example of where policy lags practice, underscoring the need for alignment of technology and policy to encourage widespread adoption of technologies that can reduce or eliminate carbon emissions.

The Sustainable Process Engineering program is extremely timely and meets an absolutely critical need for well-rounded engineers who are eager to use their technical expertise and leadership skills to develop and advocate for innovative technologies.

UBC is an exciting place to do this work, given its long history of research initiatives in sustainable technologies and its connections with a vibrant local ecosystem of companies working in this field.

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