Carbon-capture technology wins BC company a million-dollar prize backed by Elon Musk’s foundation

VANCOUVER — A company spun off from, and partnered with, the University of British Columbia has won a $1-million (US) prize it will use to continue research and development of technology for increasing carbon capture at mine sites, which its developers say could leave some mines with net carbon emissions of zero — or even better.

Carbin Minerals received the money from the Musk Foundation-backed XPRIZE Carbon Removal Competition, a four-year contest meant to speed up climate solutions.

“The capital infusion gives us a big jump start in our ability to grow the company much faster and accelerate the R&D and the deployment of the technology,” said Greg Dipple, company co-founder and professor at UBC’s department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences.

“Having the Elon Musk Foundation XPRIZE affiliated with our company — that brand and that name recognition — we feel is also going to be just as important for us.”

The company is developing technology able to use tailings facilities at mines to capture carbon dioxide at faster rate.

Carbon is already absorbed by certain rocks in tailings, and is transformed into minerals and stored as a carbonate rock. When tailings sit motionless, however, the capturing of carbon is slower — agitating them brings up fresh material to absorb carbon, Dipple said.

“We basically manipulate those tailings, so we do things like we manage the water content, we mix them up, we stir them, so that we can elevate the rate of carbon capture,” he explained.

The tailings are then monitored continuously and treated to keep the rate of carbon capture high. The longest experiment so far has lasted eight months.

Another company cofounder, Bethany Ladd, a researcher in the same department as Dipple, said the process can speed up the mineralization process from thousands of years to “weeks, even days,” turning mines into giant carbon sinks.

“In our application, we showed how we would remove 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at one mine site by 2024, and potentially remove mega- and giga-tonnes in the future,” Ladd said in a statement.

Not all types of mine tailings can use the technology but it can be particularly effective at nickel and diamond mines, Dipple said.

Dipple said the technology can eventually be effective enough to capture all the carbon from massive nickel mines and even go beyond, helping other industries having trouble dealing with carbon output by capturing some of their emissions.

Much of the equipment used to keep the tailings stirred up is existing machinery and agricultural equipment, like tractors and bulldozers. However, Dipple said there is work being done to develop machinery specific to the task.

“We’re trying to work toward the development of autonomous rovers that would go in and move around the tailings facility and churn it up using screw drives,” he said. “Think of it as a large Roomba that would be moving around the tailings surface.”

Carbin Minerals is the most recent UBC-linked company to be awarded an XPRIZE. Last year Takachar, a startup developing a waste-burning emission reduction invention, won the student version of the prize. It will get $1 million (US) this year on top of money received last year.

Carbin is one of two Canadian companies to be awarded the prize. Nova Scotia’s Planetary Technologies also won. The two Canadian companies were part of a 15-team winner’s circle initially made up of more than 1,100 competitors.


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