Aug. 14, 2023

Adaptable clean-energy technology revolutionizes the fight against climate change

National CANSTOREnergy initiative pioneers a greener future through innovative CO2-conversion units
Dr. Joule Bergerson and Dr. Viola Birss
Dr. Joule Bergerson and Dr. Viola Birss Becca McInnes and Nada Hassanin

The recent wildfires in Canada have cast a global spotlight on the impacts of climate change and deteriorating air quality. In the face of escalating concerns, the hunt is on for clean-energy solutions. 

Leading this charge is the innovative CANSTOREnergy project, backed by the University of Calgary, which aims to transform carbon dioxide (CO2) and renewable energy into fuels where and when they are needed.

The project is a coast-to-coast endeavour bolstered by the expertise of Dr. Viola Birss, a professor and researcher in the Department of Chemistry, and Dr. Joule Bergerson, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering and Canada Research Chair in Energy Technology Assessment, along with researchers from 11 Canadian universities and more than 40 research teams across Canada. 

The project is divided into three clusters — Direct, Discover and Develop — each offering various world-class researchers with different disciplinary expertise to design climate-wise solutions that meet the unique needs and goals of communities throughout Canada. It has received $24 million in research funds through the federal New Frontiers in Research Fund’s (NFRF) 2022 Transformation Competition.

Community-specific fuel conversion ‘boxes’

CANSTOREnergy fuel-storage units are a carbon-capture and conversion technology that converts carbon-based emissions from the atmosphere or a point source, such as exhaust, into various forms of green fuels. Bergerson, who leads the Develop team, says CANSTOREnergy is changing the innovation process by engaging communities early in the process and adapting the technology to fit their needs.

The Develop team assesses electrochemical conversion technologies and collaborates with researchers in the social sciences, sciences and engineering to understand potential economic and environmental consequences of different combinations of technologies at different scales. The project aims to generate green fuels, especially in places like the Yukon where communities experience seasonal extremes, limiting their ability to fully capitalize on their hydropower resources. 

"What I'm excited about in my research is the innovation and adaptation of system-level tools to evaluate early stage technologies, says Bergerson. “This allows us to influence the design and avoid potential negative consequences associated with how the technologies could be deployed in the future." 

Birss, who is part of the Discover team, says that, while these regions have access to renewable energy, they remain heavily dependent on imported fuels like diesel during the winter months.

Firefighters work to contain blazes in the Kamloops and southeast areas of British Columbia this summer.

Firefighters work to contain blazes in the Kamloops and southeast areas of British Columbia this summer.

B.C. Wildfire Service

Importance of finding local solutions

CANSTOREnergy acknowledges the importance of "regional specificity" in finding solutions for individual communities. With research teams embedded in the Yukon and southern Ontario, the project seeks to adapt its technology to match each community's scale, resources and societal requirements. This approach ensures that the technology considers the diverse challenges different regions face.

The involvement of Indigenous communities at the inception of the project is a critical aspect of CANSTOREnergy's success, ensuring initiatives are conducted in a manner that respects and benefits the communities, their economies, job opportunities and social well-being once the units are fully installed and set to run. Bergerson says researchers don't discuss regional specificity as much as they should to get solutions that will truly work in a specific community.

"This project really touches on that specificity, and it's going to be a critical part of realizing the climate benefits of the technologies that are deployed," says Bergerson. "It's not going to be a one-size-fits-all technology.” 

Greener jobs and a greener future

CANSTOREnergy’s impact on the energy sector is expected to be transformative, creating jobs and cultivating a new generation of energy leaders. "It will open a larger space for jobs in clean energy, similar to the job growth we've seen in oil and gas over the years," says Birss. "With climate change being a pressing concern, companies are finally beginning to pivot towards these new clean, green solutions.”

Funding such as the NFRF grant allows researchers like Birss and Bergerson to take risks and drive innovation forward. Bergerson says the support CANSTOREnergy receives allows them to involve more students and postdocs. “We can provide the opportunity for them to travel and work directly in these communities and experience the conversations and insights that come from listening to those who will be using the technologies,” says Bergerson. 

Bergerson adds the project aligns with UCalgary’s vision for a sustainable future and emphasis on transdisciplinary collaboration. 

UCalgary ‘saw our vision’

Birss, who held a Canada Research Chair in Electrochemistry of Materials for Fuel Cells and Related Energy Applications for two terms, starting in 2004, says her chair focus was almost ahead of its time, allowing her to build what she calls “a beautiful space here at UCalgary” early on, where her team began to develop the catalysts and acquire the infrastructure they routinely use now and will need as part of CANSTOREnergy. “The university saw our vision and has helped support us all the way through," she says.

As development of the technology continues, CANSTOREnergy aims to improve its durability and power, with the ultimate goal of offering a Canada-made solution that replaces traditional hydrocarbons with green fuels. 

“These are just the starting points,” says Bergerson. “The plan is for the technologies and approaches to innovation that come from CANSTOREnergy to be adopted across Canada, and, eventually, across the world.”

UCalgary is committed to creating opportunities for entrepreneurial thinking and applied practice in the green energy space. Departments like Chemistry and Chemical and Petroleum Engineering work to create products that support the fight against climate change and are foundational to a modern and changing society. The university’s chemical engineers are exploring ways to a better future, making significant contributions in microelectronics, energy conversion and storage, nanomaterials and composites, automation, biotechnology, and beyond. Oil and gas engineers are developing innovative solutions that reduce the carbon footprint of the global energy sector. Together with industry, they are developing a better understanding of underground reservoirs and recovering petroleum in a safer, more economical and environmentally sustainable way. UCalgary’s Office of Sustainability supports the university’s vision of a better, cleaner future.

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