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Written by Tyler Hamilton (@Go2CleanBreak) for the Toronto Star
Published Wednesday, September 30, 2015


David Bangma looks like he has superhuman strength as he pushes his fingers effortlessly through a concrete block, causing part of it to crumble.

It’s not an illusion or a trick. Bangma, plant manager at Brampton Brick, knows that this particular block has just been poured and shaped, meaning at this stage it has the consistency of extra-thick cookie dough.

The block will soon enter the plant’s kiln, where it will cure for about 24 hours and emerge strong enough to carry the weight of a building for 100 years.

That’s not the only thing it’ll carry. All blocks that exit the kiln have carbon dioxide from local emitters baked inside and forever trapped, making them building blocks — literally — for more climate-friendly structures and cities.

The idea of recycling CO2 into new products is gaining momentum as efforts to capture and store the greenhouse gas underground flounder. For former idea is viewed as an opportunity to generate profit; the latter is a cost that nobody wants to pay.

Skyonic of Austin, Tex., captures CO2 from industrial flue gases and converts it into saleable baking soda, household bleach and hydrochloric acid. Fort Myers, Fla.-based Algenol feeds CO2 to algae-like bacteria that produce ethanol and eventually gasoline and jet fuel. In Massachusetts, Waltham-based Novomer is using the greenhouse gas as an ingredient in a new line of plastics.

Meanwhile, scientists at George Washington University have designed a solar-powered process that extracts CO2 from the open air and turns it into high-strength carbon nanofibres, which are increasingly used to make everything from airplane parts to hockey sticks. Stuart Licht, who led the research team, said the process is akin to making “diamonds from the sky.”

Opportunities are so plentiful that efforts are now underway to identify where recycled carbon is best used. On Tuesday, XPrize launched a $20 million competition seeking “breakthrough technologies that convert the most CO2 into one or more products with the highest net value.”

Alberta, the country’s biggest CO2 emitter, also wants in on the action. Earlier this month, the agency that distributes funds collected through the province’s carbon levy launched the second round of its own international “carbon use” competition.

The province has committed $15 million to the five most promising projects. The overall winner gets an additional $10 million if it agrees to commercialize its technology in Alberta.

Trapping CO2 in concrete is a strong contender. Brampton Brick is the first company in North America to use recycled CO2 as an ingredient in its entire concrete block-making operations, including the recently purchased assets of Canadian competitor Atlas Block.

The technology on which it depends comes from Halifax-based CarbonCure, which has so far signed up concrete masonry companies in 12 provinces and states.

“Everything we manufacture today has CO2 in it,” said Dave Carter, chief operating officer of Brampton Brick, pointing to green building standards such as Leadership in Environment and Environmental Design (LEED) as drivers of the trend.

One of the first Toronto structures built with the CarbonCure blocks is the swimming facility at the Markham Pan Am Centre. “It’s in demand,” Carter said. “There’s a desire from the construction industry. If we didn’t do it, our competitors would and we would lose market share.”

Making these products better and stronger, while also reducing their carbon footprints, doesn’t add a lot to Brampton Brick’s overall costs, so the company made a conscious decision not to charge a “green” premium.

Carter doesn’t tout his company’s CO2-injected blocks as a silver bullet for the concrete industry, which accounts for roughly 5 per cent of global GHG emissions. “It’s just a piece of the puzzle,” he said, pointing also to the cement and concrete industry’s rising use of alternative fuels and materials.

“Recycling CO2 is just one component of it. This is the start for our industry.”

This article is part of a series produced in partnership by the Toronto Star and Tides Canada to address a range of pressing climate issues in Canada leading up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, December 2015. Tides Canada is supporting this partnership to increase public awareness and dialogue around the impacts of climate change on Canada’s economy and communities. The Toronto Star has full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories are rigorously edited in order to meet its editorial standards.

Article on the Toronto Star's website can be found here

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