Innovator Profiles

Robert Niven

Robert Niven, CarbonCure

Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, has a pretty bad reputation. While the amount that we produce as a planet continues to rise, some jurisdictions are providing regulatory and market incentives for industries that decrease their emissions. One carbon-intensive industry in particular – cement and concrete manufacturing – has been looking at ways of staying competitive while meeting such emission reduction targets. CarbonCure Technologies, based out of Halifax NS, is providing such an innovation: a process for sequestering C02 directly into building materials.

Robert Niven, CEO and Founder of CarbonCure, is a true cleantech entrepreneur; he understands both the business and politics of climate change. “I’ve been involved in the UN climate change process,” says Niven, who has participated in four negotiation sessions over the last seven years as an academic, cleantech entrepreneur, and member of the Canadian Youth Delegation. “I think everything is stalling right now,” he continues, “there are no business drivers for industry to take action on climate change. I think the approach we’ve taken is the right one: find economic drivers, and be creative. We’re just making better concrete, it just happens to have a lower carbon footprint. We can use C02 as a value-added input. To me, that’s really exciting.”

CarbonCure BlocksCarbonCure’s process not only sequesters C02, but also makes the concrete stronger. “The majority of the concrete is exactly the same,” says Niven, “from the naked eye, you would never tell the difference.” But looking much closer, the differences are more apparent. “Under the microscope, there’s quite a lot more infilling,” he explains. This increased strength means using less energy overall, or in Niven’s words “a double dipping of C02 benefits.” He goes on to explain “the value we provide is two steps. We provide stronger concrete from the curing reaction. Concrete producers are only required to make concrete to a certain strength level. Now that we provide this higher strength concrete, they can change things – dial back the amount of energy required for curing, so they can achieve the same strength number but with less inputs.” In effect, they can make more with less.

“If you look at concrete,” explains Niven, “cement starts off as CaC03, it’s heated in cement kilns, and this release one molecule of C02 for every molecule of lime. We’re reversing that reaction – we’re providing a supplementary curing reaction.”

Exactly where CarbonCure sources its C02 is left up to the market, but it’s generally waste C02 from final emitters. “In Nova Scotia,” explains Niven, “the cheapest and most abundant C02 is sourced from a refinery. In Toronto, it’s a fertilizer plant.” Much of the C02 produced in such plants goes through an intermediary, such as Air Liquide – a large multinational that provides much of the C02 for the food and beverage industry. As much as we may not want to think about it, many of the bubbles in our fizzy drinks start their life as industrial waste. The CarbonCure process permanently transforms those bubbles into solid limestone, while also making a value-added product with the potential for vast emissions reductions.

The possible reductions per building “varies drastically,” explains Niven, “but maybe it’s easier to think of it from the market side. If we just look at blocks, there are upward of three billion blocks produced in North American alone.” With an estimated 250 grams of C02 avoided per block, “these are profitable emissions. Some buildings might be 50,000 blocks.”

But CarbonCure doesn’t want to just stop at concrete blocks. “Blocks are just our first foray, this tech will soon be applicable for other concrete products, including the ready-mix industry that accounts for three-quarters of the market.” Niven explains that, “what we want to do is achieve a vision to create a scalable concrete-negative concrete at equivalent cost and performance. We’re trying to make a concrete that heals and doesn’t harm.”

Robert Niven with CarbonCure blocks“A lot of the cement industry – the glue of concrete – understands that it has an incredibly high carbon intensity, and all of the building trends are going toward low-carbon buildings. They have few responses to this pressure, so they’re looking for new solutions. What they typically do at a market level is energy efficiency; the new space they’re trying to push hard at is using less processed material in their cement blend.” More radical work like cement made from seawater is happening mostly in North America, with other firms active in the UK and Australia. “At the commercial level,” explains Niven, “all the big cement companies are pushing hard for change.”

As for how companies like CarbonCure can get their feet off the ground, Niven explains that there’s a “pretty well worn path for technology innovation” when it comes to funding. “Most innovators start with funding from National Research Council (NRC). With success, entrepreneurs can leverage private and industry investment with later stage funding agencies like Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) and the Atlantic Cooperation and Opportunities Agency (ACOA).” Beyond this kind of funding for the sector, real cleantech success comes when entrepreneurs balance funding with private investment and industry partnerships. Niven says the turning point for their technology was when they met with The Shaw Group, one of Eastern Canada’s leaders in construction products. “Tech needs industry for plant level validation, and industry profits from adopting new innovation,” says Niven, “They provided a tremendous amount of in-kind value to the company; that accelerates product development and industry acceptance. 

So what’s next? “We’re going to market. This year we’ve been running periodic production runs with our industry partners, just making product and improving the tech. In the new year, we start selling this product. We’re going out to concrete producers. We start selling to our customers, and in a way we sell to their customers: architects and engineers.” As CarbonCure technology becomes the norm, the amount of C02 we can sequester, and the amount of money their customers can save, will be further proof that environmental sustainability and profit can very often go hand in hand.