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Managing our Carbon Emissions

We, as human beings, find ourselves in a challenging situation when it comes to carbon emissions. Almost everything we do in our modern lives produces carbon emissions, which impact the very environment we live in. Is it possible to maintain our quality of life AND reduce our carbon emissions? Our scientists are working hard to address that issue. Listen to find out how.


Joel Houle: We, as human beings, find ourselves in a challenging situation when it comes to carbon emissions.

Barbara Ustina: The food we eat, the goods we produce, the power we consume, even the hobbies we choose to pursue. Almost everything we do in our modern lives produces carbon emissions, which impact the very environment we live in.

Joel Houle: Is it possible to maintain our quality of life AND reduce our carbon emissions?

Barbara Ustina: Our scientists are working hard to address that issue. Stay tuned to find out how.

Joel Houle: Welcome to a new episode of Simply Science — the podcast that talks about the amazing scientific work that our experts at Natural Resources Canada are doing. My name is Joel Houle…

Barbara Ustina: And I'm Barb Ustina. Welcome, everyone. As always, we have a really interesting episode for you. We're talking about carbon management. Now, you're probably wondering, what exactly does that mean? Well, carbon management is taking the steps to better control and reduce the amount of carbon emissions that we release into the atmosphere. And if you're still wondering, listen to this podcast, because there are so many layers to this, and it's really worth a listen.

Joel Houle: And for the first time in a long time, we have the luxury of interviewing our two guests in person. And that means that we would be four people. But we only have three microphones in our studio/closet. So why don't you, Barb, take the interview solo, and maybe we can reconnect after.

Barbara Ustina: Okay, well, I think it's time to add another microphone to the studio, but let's do it. This sounds like a really great plan. Let's bring in our guests.

Joel Houle: Let’s do it!

Barbara Ustina: Joining us in studio today is Robert Symonds and Amanda Alain of CanmetENERGY Ottawa. Robert and Amanda, how are you doing today?

Amanda Alain: I'm great.

Robert Symonds: Very good.

Barbara Ustina: Excellent. Can you tell us a bit about the kind of work you're involved in?

Amanda Alain: Yes. The work that I'm involved in, I'm a research engineer in the industrial decarbonization team, and my background is in chemical engineering, and I'm currently actually doing my master's in chemical engineering.

Robert Symonds: For me, I'm in the same group. I'm a research scientist. I've been with the team for about 15 years now, chemical engineering by background, master's and PhD in that field. I primarily work on techno-economic and life-cycle analysis of various carbon capture technologies.

Barbara Ustina: Do you have an opportunity to work together at times?

Amanda Alain: I think. I've only ever worked with Rob once, and it was as a co-op student. I was doing some cyclone designs. I don't know if you remember that.

Robert Symonds: Yes, I do remember that. Usually, the way it works is that Amanda is more on the development of various technologies where I look at the higher level and how these technologies can be implemented into industry. Essentially, the experimental work that Amanda produces then feeds into these higher-level models that can then be disseminated out to various industries.

Barbara Ustina: Now, we're here today to talk about carbon management, which is, it's a really big topic. You could probably talk for days on this topic, but before we dive into the details, maybe we can just touch a bit on when we talk about carbon management, what exactly are we talking about?

Robert Symonds: As most people are probably aware, we use fossil fuels to produce energy and heat and a lot of different other products. These fossil fuels, typically when they're burnt or converted, they result in CO2. For the most part, the CO2 is then emitted to the atmosphere. That has implications on things like climate change and global warming. When we're talking about carbon management, we're essentially talking about all the way from the feed to the end product, how do we manage that carbon?

How do we ensure that we reduce the amount of carbon we produce, and then the carbon that is produced, usually in the form of CO2, how can we avoid emitting that to the atmosphere and instead either doing something useful with it, like utilization or storing that?

Barbara Ustina: It goes well beyond just storage and utilization then, is that right?

Robert Symonds: Yes.

Barbara Ustina: Now, what stage are we at in Canada when it comes to carbon management?

Amanda Alain: In general, Canada is trying to do a lot. One of the reasons is in 2015, there was this thing called the Paris Agreement that was signed. It's an international treaty that has the goal of limiting the overall average temperature increase of the world to below 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. Since we signed this agreement, we're trying to make sure that we can actually achieve that global goal of limiting our temperature increase. The government itself, being a signatory, is trying to ensure that we can reach net zero by about 2050.

They're doing several things. They're financing some research into clean energy technologies. They also are financing industry to help them move over to a cleaner way of doing business. Also, they start posing standards and restrictions and carbon pricing as well to try and achieve our carbon goals. Then there's a bunch of other parties that are also involved. I don't know if Rob would like to speak to that.

Robert Symonds: Yes. In terms of the other parties, there's the government level, there's the federal government level, which is putting these standards on everything. Each province itself has individual goals. That is really important because each province and territory in Canada has a different makeup of where these emissions are coming from. Each province produces power differently, has different types of industry, has different costs associated with utilities like electricity and water, which are needed for these carbon capture projects.

Everyone has different goals in alignment with that. There's academic groups, universities, and other research facilities that are looking at novel ways to reduce emissions. There are some technologies that are essentially commercialized now that we could tack on to existing facilities to capture it, but typically the costs are much lower at a larger scale. That means that there's a large area of small and medium-type emitters that require novel technologies to try to drive those costs down. That's where the academics come in.

Then there's also the industry itself. They're looking at ways to first reduce the amount of carbon that they're producing. That's the first step. Then the second step is trying to figure out which technology best suited to reduce the emissions. Then once they have that CO2, where can it go? There's a three-step process. There's the capturing of the CO2, then there's the transport of the CO2 to wherever you want to use it or you want to store it. Then there's the storage portion of it as well. Where are you going to put it? Is there enough space for that CO2 and for how long?

Barbara Ustina: I'm curious, this is just a question off the top of my head. When you talk about transporting CO2, what form does that take? Is it pipelines or is it in transport trucks? I'm just trying to visualize what this looks like.

Robert Symonds: In some of the modelling that we're developing as part of a large project that we're doing, which is the National CCUS Assessment Framework, we're looking at all modes of transportation. We're looking at pipeline, rail, boat, truck. The optimized way to transport, which is usually based on cost, really depends on where it is and what topography and rights of way and restricted lands are there in the way. That's how we dictate which method is going to be the best. One thing that should be pointed out right now is there is no integrated CO2 network right now in Canada.

This is something that needs to be built up and there needs to be collaboration between provinces because likely a lot of sources of CO2 are not where the storage sites are. We'll probably have to transport them long distances. Luckily, we do have a pretty extensive rail network, so rail is possible, but it is likely going to be the more expensive option until we can have integrated pipeline networks.

Barbara Ustina: It's incredibly complex infrastructure questions that we have to answer with this.

Robert Symonds: That's right.

Amanda Alain: It's not one size fits all at all. It's definitely more difficult to deal with.

Barbara Ustina: Very nuanced. I hadn't even considered different provinces and different locations and how all of that all comes together and all the different voices at the table. There are many different governments and agencies involved. Can you tell me, NRCan, what is our role?

Amanda Alain: NRCan does a lot of financing. They'll finance internal projects and also finance external propositions from industry as well. Beyond just financing these projects and trying to help with carbon management, they also do research and development. There's a bunch of three research centers that are called CanmetENERGY. Me and Rob are part of CanmetENERGY Ottawa, but there's also one in Devon, Alberta, as well as one in Varenne, Quebec. They all have different niches. For Devon, for example, they focus more on hydrocarbons and how to limit their impact.

Whereas in Varenne, they deal with buildings, industry, and integration of renewable energies. Then at CanmetENERGY Ottawa, we have a bit of a mixed bag where we deal with buildings, northern systems, bioenergy, renewables, transport and carbon management, of course.

Barbara Ustina: Now, you both come from science and research backgrounds. Can you tell us a bit about the projects that you're involved in right now?

Amanda Alain: Yes. I'm part of the industrial decarbonization team, and the overarching goal of our team is to advance technologies from a technology readiness level of 3 to 6. All that means is that we take a proof of concept that maybe has a little bit of lab data, but not much, and we bring that all the way to a demonstration scale, which would be some kind of prototype. We would be able to show industry that it's actually a viable process, and it makes them more willing to actually adopt that technology.

Specifically, one of the projects I'm working on right now is called pressurized chemical looping, which is a bit of a mouthful sometimes, but it's a carbon capture technology. The point of it is that you're able to burn fuel with air, but they actually never meet, they never touch. When you do that, you're able to get carbon dioxide that's fairly pure, and you can then do a couple purification steps and do whatever you want with it, whether it's store it or utilize it. The world's your oyster, I guess.

Robert Symonds: Essentially, it's ready to go. It's ready to be transported.

Barbara Ustina: Easier to manage.

Robert Symonds: Easier to manage and the one thing about this process as well is that it's higher efficiency than the existing processes that are there now. The only caveat is that this would replace an existing technology or an existing process. There might be a little bit higher initial investment in it, but then there would be gains returned year by year. Whereas some of the approaches right now are the main approaches that are being considered for carbon capture are tack on. Use the existing facility as is, and it might be low efficiency and it might have been built 50 years ago, but we can put this on right now and we'll capture the CO2.

That might work for very, very large systems that already have a lot of capital infrastructure that has been in place, but it's likely not going to be a good fit for the small and medium emitters.

Amanda Alain: Yes, and that's our goal for this project, to try and get those small and medium emitters, because if we do want to reach net zero by 2050, you have to hit everyone. You can't forget about them. That's where we found our niche for this technology.

Robert Symonds: For me, bit of a mixed bag. I used to do more stuff related to experimental and technology development, but in the last couple years, I've really transitioned more to looking holistically at carbon cap or what we call CCUS, which is carbon capture utilization storage. There's also a removal component. I'm looking at techno-economic assessments and life-cycle assessments of a variety of different carbon capture technologies, transportation networks and storage. Looking at what is the overall cost, what is potentially optimized cost, and then what kind of implications does this have on an overall life-cycle basis?

We're talking here about net emissions, but each step still has some emissions associated to it. We need to figure out what the overall impact of doing this is. Then essentially building up these models that can allow any user, so that can be at the academic scale, the provincial scale, federal, or even industry to better understand what technologies are available for them and what the cost will look like for them. We're looking at this at an agnostic level, so it's just that anybody can use these types of models.

Barbara Ustina: When you say they have CO2 emissions themselves, I'm thinking like the transportation, for instance, you have to take that into calculation. It's quite a complex calculation to be made here.

Robert Symonds: We use, they call it wells to wheels, so it's exactly where do those components start and where do they end up at the end? We consider carbon, but we also look at environmental factors as well, water usage. A lot of these technologies, they require additional water. They require fresh water or cleaned-up water. We need to look at what impact there. We don't want to solve the CO2 problem and then create a whole bunch of other problems.

Barbara Ustina: Now I'm just curious. It just sounds like it's such an evolving field right now, it's brand new, there's so much to learn. Looking forward as you move through your research and as we head towards 2050 for instance, what are some of the scientific or technical challenges or questions do you see moving forward that you want to see answered before we get there?

Amanda Alain: That's a tough question. [laughs]

Barbara Ustina: I know I didn't really word it properly, but what are some of the scientific and technical questions that you want to answer?

Amanda Alain: We need to make sure that we're able to do carbon management properly. There are questions for storage, for example, will it cause earthquakes. Researchers are aware that that could be an issue, but they're trying to limit it because they're choosing these sites with that in mind. They're going to have control and surveillance of the pressure and pressure monitoring. Researchers are looking at a lot of different things. That's just one example. I don't know if Rob has anything else to add to that.

Robert Symonds: I have a couple. I think there's two different categories. There's the technical challenges and we talked a little bit about that. I think we still need to better understand the industries, where they want to go, what the true cost will be for this. Whether or not what role will renewables play? Because the ultimate goal here is, if you never used a fossil fuel, you would never have CO2 emissions, at least not anthropogenic emissions. If we wanted to switch to more renewables, how will that play? What kind of infrastructure is going to be required?

What kind of timeline will that be? The other part is more a social component to it is that I think there has to be social acceptance of doing this. There's that old not in my backyard. While these industries were tucked away somewhere and people didn't have much problem, now we're talking about transporting a lot of CO2 either by pipeline or by train that might be met with some resistance. Then we're also talking as Amanda said, about storing it somewhere. That could end up being somewhere close to where people live or work in that.

There has to be a social acceptance that this is the right thing to do to make sure that that can be done smoothly. We need to make sure that we respect the lands because we're going to be potentially putting large infrastructure through that. There's a lot of things to consider and I think there's a lot of outreach that should be done in education before these major decisions are made.

Amanda Alain: Yes, sooner rather than later. [laughs]

Robert Symonds: Sooner rather than later, yes.

Barbara Ustina: Now, I think you've already answered this question throughout the podcast, but just as a final question to you both is what is the ultimate goal of carbon management in Canada?

Amanda Alain: Ultimately, we want to limit the temperature increase globally because if we don't, the impacts of climate change are going to be much more severe. I'm sure a lot of people have noticed there's stronger storms and here in Ottawa that derecho last year. It's just more of that would happen if we keep letting the temperatures increase. Carbon management, it's a short-term stop-gap measure as Rob was alluding to we're going to have to move more and more to renewables and phase out a lot of carbon-based fuels.

Robert Symonds: Yes and I guess like one thing about that, it's very different than maybe other places in the world is that we have access to a lot of fossil fuels and they're relatively cheap and a lot of our infrastructure has been designed on them. You can't expect people to change overnight because we still need to do this in a cost-effective manner because we want to keep our businesses here. If it's too costly to do something with the CO2, we don't want the industry to move away because of that.

We're likely going to have this transition period where the cost of renewables will eventually drop and maybe we can slowly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels switch over to bio-based products for industries where carbon is still needed because there's some processes that always need carbon there. If we used the bio-based carbon that should be like net zero on emissions. Yes, that's eventually where we really want to go.

Barbara Ustina: It's a fascinating field to be working in right now. You guys are at the forefront of change here in Canada, really. Now for our listeners who want to find out more information about carbon management in Canada, are there any sources you'd like to direct them to or point out for them?

Amanda Alain: Yes, so all of the provinces and territories have some climate action plan. Those are available on their respective websites, which will give you an idea at the provincial level. There's also a lot of things internationally that just to get an idea of what the world is trying to do because it's not a problem specific to Canada. Climate change is a global problem.

Robert Symonds: Although we have our own little things and challenges.

Amanda Alain: Everyone has to work together. There's we mentioned it earlier, the Paris Agreement. You can see a bit more about what Canada actually signed to agree on. Do you want to talk a bit more about the other?

Robert Symonds: Yes, so then there's also like the federal plans on carbon management that can be found in the various websites. NRCan has a lot of a good resource on that Environment Canada, or ECCC also has a lot of information on that. Then there's also Mission Innovation which is an international program with various leads. Canada's actually leading quite a few of the initiatives within that and they have a lot of detailed information on who's doing what in what areas and who's leading it, so very international program.

Barbara Ustina: Okay. Thank you so much for your time this afternoon. I really appreciate it.

Amanda Alain: Thank you.

Robert Symonds: Thank you for having us.

Joel Houle: Thank you, Barb, for doing the heavy lifting on this episode. We have a very complex relationship with carbon, and I think that Amanda and Robert did a great job of breaking it all down for us.

Barbara Ustina: Oh, isn't that the truth. They did a fantastic job. And for those interested in learning more about carbon management and carbon emissions, please check out the links in the episode description.

Joel Houle: You can also leave a review or share this episode. And if you share over social media, make sure to tag us.

Barbara Ustina: I might remind everyone that Simply Science also has a website and a YouTube channel, which you should check out. And we have in depth articles of interest and videos that showcase the fascinating scientific work that we do here at Natural Resources Canada. And you can find those links in the episode description as well, and social media channels too.

Joel Houle: Thank you, Barb. And thank you so much, everyone, for listening. We'll see you in the next episode.

Barbara Ustina: Bye for now!

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