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Carbonova plans Canada's first large-scale carbon nanofibre facility

Company's process turns carbon, methane feedstock into ultrathin fibres

IMAGE: Members of Carbonova Corp.
From left to right: Alireza Zarrabian, Tim Stauft, Hector Guzman, CEO Mina Zarabian, Nathan Simmons and Redescal Gomez. (Courtesy Carbonova Corp.)

Carbonova Corp., which makes ultra-thin carbon fibres from the by-products of greenhouse gases, is laying the groundwork to build what it says will be the first large-scale commercial facility of its kind in Canada.

The Calgary-based company was recently granted $2 million from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) to aid in the development of a modular commercial facility.

The company's carbon nanofibres have applications as additives in a variety of industries such as vehicles, concrete, electronics, textiles, ink, coatings, lubricants, tires and agriculture.

Carbonova has an existing pilot facility in Calgary, which has been operating for a little over a year, distributing its products to global customers. The next few months will involve pre-FEED (front-end engineering and design) and FEED studies for the scale-up.

“What we're producing now, that design is about one-and-a-half kilograms (of carbon nanofibre) per day,” Tim Stauft, executive advisor to Carbonova’s CEO, said in an interview with SustainableBiz. “We'll likely do between 100 to 200 times that as part of the SDTC project.”

He expects the facility to be operational by late 2025.

Carbonova’s process

The company was founded in 2018 at the University of Calgary by Mina Zarabian, now its CEO, and Pedro Pereira Almao, its chief technology officer.

Its patented process uses excess heat to turn carbon dioxide and methane into carbon nanofibres — fibres in the nanometre range. Stauft estimates each kilogram of Carbonova's carbon nanofibres results in a 1.5 kilogram reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2).

“Is there a way to turn carbon dioxide into something valuable? Mina discovered that, yes, there was a way to do it,” Stauft said. “Dr. Pereira’s expertise was in catalysis, mostly used in the refining business, and Mina wanted to focus on CO2. So the two of them came together and came up with this idea, and it worked at the bench scale.”

At its current facility, the company buys cylinders of CO2 and methane for use as feedstock.

Stauft would not disclose costs involved in producing the nanofibres, but said other current production methods involve pyrolysis at about 1,000 degrees Celsius. Carbonova’s process operates at around half of that temperature, thus costing significantly less.

Carbonova’s progress

While the nanofibres have numerous applications, Stauft explained the company is currently focused on construction and plastics. It has signed agreements with Swiss building materials company Holcim and French plastics manufacturer SIKA for a $1.5-million project, to which Emissions Reductions Alberta contributed $500,000.

The aim is to incorporate Carbonova’s technology into concrete applications for Holcim, and demoulding oils, resins and mastics for SIKA.

“The cement industry is one of the largest CO2 emitters in the world. So it's one industry that is really focusing on how to reduce its footprint. What's unique about Carbonova is that we can take the CO2 that they emit in their process and turn it into carbon nanofibres,” Stauft said.

“Then the cement and concrete that comes out the other end is actually higher value than it was with just sequestering the CO2 into the cement itself," he added. "So it's a little different than a lot of the other fly ash and other technologies, that store CO2 in a different form in the concrete. What we do is add value to the concrete.”

Carbonova is also working with SIKA and other companies on replacing steel with the nanofibres, particularly in vehicles. According to Stauft, doing so would result in 100 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions reductions per kilogram of nanofibre.

There have also been “numerous inquiries” from the U.S. Carbonova has forged development agreements with automotive parts manufacturer Magna International Inc. and chemical company BASF via climate tech startup incubator Greentown Labs.

Carbonova’s commercial unit

The exact size and location of the commercial facility has yet to be determined, although the company expects it to be located in Canada.

“Having said that, we do have a number of interests from internationally as well,” Stauft said.

The SDTC funding will carry over the next two to three years for the pre-FEED and FEED studies. Once that process is complete, there will be another capital raise to construct the facility. 

Stauft said the funding process took about four to five months with several subject matter experts questioning the company on its business plan.

“We're doing a couple of things in parallel. One is the running (of) the pilot plant, and continuing to produce product around the world. And then the second pillar is really the pre-FEED and FEED associated with the scale-up with a commercial unit,” Stauft said.

“Then the third pillar is really continuing to work with customers around the world for the distribution of our technology globally.”

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