Will this little bit of progress edge us toward flattening the climate curve?
Innovators right here in Ontario are giving us hope.
The pandemic’s environmental impact was obvious. With lockdowns and travel restrictions, commutes, trips abroad, tourism and consumer activity all ground to a halt, and there was an immediate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, power and fossil fuel consumption and waste. While government and society focused on “flattening the curve” of COVID-19, we had unknowingly begun flattening the climate curve as well. But will that progress continue after the pandemic? With new technology and innovative organizations, it’s possible.
CHEMICAL AND HAZARDOUS SUBSTANCES
Ten years ago, a group of firefighters discovered that the traditional foam products used for firefighting and deemed environmentally safe or biodegradable weren’t actually safe at all. In fact, these foams contained toxic, cancer-causing chemicals that were not only harmful to the firefighters that used them but to the environment as well.
These “forever” chemicals (like PFAS, PFO and ammonium phosphate) can absorb into human tissue. They also solubilize with water, meaning that these chemicals can run off into nearby rivers, lakes and wells. When they do eventually decompose, which takes centuries, these foams can change soil composition which can kill off vegetation. Even marketed “green” products still contained toxic ingredients with harmful consequences for firefighters and the environment alike.
This discovery prompted the formation of an innovative cleantech company
FireRein, co-founded by Quincy Emmons, a volunteer firefighter, training officer and captain; Peter Sells, former chief of Toronto Fire Academy and chief training officer at the Toronto Fire Service; Zackery Hodgen, a firefighter paramedic; and Steven Montgomery, owner of Montgomery Water Service and Montgomery Logistics. The foursome combined their decades of experience in wildland firefighting, industrial emergency response and urban firefighting to create Eco-Gel — the world’s only certified 100 percent bio-based water additive for battling Class A and Class B fires that’s not only safer for humans and the environment but outperforms traditional foam products as well.
“What makes Eco-Gel different from foams is that it sticks and stays where applied, preventing run of the toxic bioproducts of combustion,” Hodgen explains. “The incumbent foams quickly evaporate when applied. When Eco-Gel is applied, it stays in place. The bio-polymers slow the evaporation rate of the contained water, mitigating fire spread and reignition.” All gels are super-absorbent polymers but the trick was making a gel product that worked with existing firefighting equipment.
Certified as 100 perfect bio-based by the USDA Bio Preferred program and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Environment for its effectiveness, Eco-Gel is sourced from natural food-grade ingredients and formulated with FireRein’s proprietary process, making it a safer alternative for firefighters and the only firefighting product to meet stringent environmental standards.
“Eco-Gel’s ability to cool and smother attacks two sides of the
fire tetrahedron which knocks a fire down faster. Faster fire suppression can reduce the time a firefighter is exposed to other harmful chemicals related to the products of combustion,” Emmons adds.
Fire chiefs and international chemical companies have taken notice, and Emmons says that this has unlocked key market channels for FireRein, like municipal fire departments, government and other industries.
“Where we once had to try and squeeze in the door to have a conversation about how the chemicals in firefighting foam are impacting climate change and current wildfire tactics, communities and fire chiefs are now contacting us to learn more about how Eco-Gel is a safer solution for our firefighters and the communities they protect.”
“The incumbent foams quickly evaporate when applied. When Eco-Gel is applied, it sticks and stays in place. The bio-polymers slow the evaporation rate of the contained water, mitigating fire spread and reignition.”
End-of-life lithium-ion batteries and the battery manufacturing scrap that’s generated along the way are proving to be a global issue. Ontario-based Li-Cycle is on top of it.
Chemical engineer Ajay Kochhar and mechanical engineer Tim Johnston are the co-founders of Li-Cycle. They met while working at Hatch, a global multidisciplinary company that focused on hydrometallurgical and chemical plants to produce battery materials. During their time at Hatch the pair realized that there was a glaring lack of environmentally and economically sustainable recycling solutions for
lithium-ion batteries. This prompted them to join forces and form Li-Cycle in 2016, to develop their own solution.
Together they created their patented Spoke & Hub Technologies which recover up to 95 percent of the valuable materials contained within end-of-life batteries and battery scrap waste generated during production. They then recirculate them back into the economy in a truly sustainable way.
This is a two-stage process. The first step is to take scrap from end-of-life batteries and battery manufacturing to their Spoke facilities where the material is reduced in size through a submerged shredding process. This generates three product materials: plastics, aluminum/copper and “black mass” (a substance that contains highly valuable materials like lithium, nickel and cobalt). This unique process reduces harmful emissions, and as the water from the process is recirculated, it works to eliminate water waste, too.
The battery material is then taken to Li-Cycle’s Hub facilities (their first commercial Hub facility is expected to be operational in 2023) and put through a hydrometallurgical circuit. Here the materials are isolated in a water-based solution and transformed into battery-grade lithium, cobalt and nickel, which are the same quality as their original counterparts (if not better) and can be put directly into new batteries.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Li-Cycle’s accomplishments over the last year are many. Not only did Li-Cycle make its debut as a publicly-traded company in the U.S. listing on the NYSE, but it also struck agreements with key players in the industry like Ultium Cells (a joint venture of General Motors and LG Energy Solution) and
LG Chem/LG Energy Solution. They also received several awards including Fast Company’s “Next Big Things In Tech” and announced new upcoming facilities in both North America and abroad.
But that’s just the beginning. By 2025 Li-Cycle plans to have 20 Spoke facilities and four Hub facilities around the world, to prevent end-of-life lithium-ion batteries from ending up in landfills and to further support sustainable global electrification.
Having consulted for large engineering companies, conducted energy audits for businesses like Square One Shopping Centre, and having acted as a shared energy manager for utility companies, Kaushik Bhattacharjee knows all about optimizing energy systems.
Today he’s the brilliant mind behind Reipower, a metering and monitoring platform powered by AI and machine learning designed for small to mid-sized industrial, commercial and institutional buildings to help them manage, monitor and optimize their power and energy consumption. Reipower helps buildings to reduce their energy costs and carbon footprint.
Here’s how it works: A sensor is placed into a building’s automation system (the system that controls the building’s HVAC). From the sensor, Reipower is able to collect data and train the AI component to know exactly how the building is operating and seek out better practices. Similar to the smart thermostats we use in our homes, Reipower can determine when an industrial building is occupied or unoccupied and can adjust the temperature based on the weather outside.
“With climate change there’s a lot of pressure on buildings to cut down on their emissions and move towards electrification,” Bhattacharjee says. “This can also cost a lot of money. Reipower’s optimization helps them to cut down
on their basic energy requirements, reduce their carbon footprint and, through managing their cooling systems, lower their costs.”
With funding from Ontario Centre for Innovation (OCI) and support from Spark Centre and Durham College’s AI Hub, Reipower was able to develop its prototype with RioCan Yonge and Sheppard Centre being Reipower’s first energy audit. They were so impressed with the project that they’ve officially partnered with Bhattacharjee, offering their facilities for further testing and development.
“I was so fortunate to have RioCan Yonge and Sheppard Centre as a client and eventually a partner who allowed their facility to be my testing ground,” Bhattacharjee says. “Testing in a lab can be very artificial. When you develop a product in tandem with a live client, like I did, it’s an integral part of the product’s success.”
Reipower now has its sights set on completing the MVP this year and adding features that will enable buildings to utilize government incentives to reduce emissions and costs while generating revenue at the same time.
In terms of Reipower’s effectiveness, RioCan Yonge and Sheppard Centre has only great things to say: “We implemented the recommended measures on the Reipower analytics platform and the measures reduced our annual cooling energy consumption by 25 percent,” says David Nobrega, operations manager for RioCan REIT. “My initial reduction benchmark was 15 percent and Reipower achieved more than anticipated. We are planning to implement more measures as suggested by the platform in the near future.”
Access to clean water has long been a major issue but innovative companies like Purafy Clean Technologies are on a mission to change that. Launched in January of this year, Purafy’s multidisciplinary team of engineers and business professionals were inspired to utilize the graphene-based materials manufactured by their parent company, Grafoid Inc., to design turnkey products that are safe, easy to use and can be deployed quickly for water-related problems in Canada and beyond.
Just this past year, Purafy became the first company to utilize certified graphene-based materials for drinking water applications. By immobilizing graphene (a form of carbon that’s derived from graphite) within polymer matrixes, Purafy is able to make polymers (materials made up of long, repeating chains of molecules) last longer with changed surface properties. Using these specific polymer and graphene combinations, they are then able to enhance membrane filtration to efficiently tackle the problems that polluted water creates. While this system is useful for the filtration of home and commercial water, it’s crucial for rural areas heavily impacted by natural disasters or facing long-term challenges with polluted groundwater and boil-water advisories.
For example, one of Purafy’s products, the Portage, contains filters that can treat up to 300 litres per hour of contaminated water into clean, drinkable water. The filtration technology housed inside an indestructible case is extremely beneficial at disaster sites and for remote Canadian communities, some of whom have had boil-water advisories for more than 20 years.
“When you think of the abundance of fresh water that we have here in Canada and then think of the communities that must boil water for everything…that’s appalling.” Cameron Runte, vice-president of product development with Purafy says. “Imagine if we could change that. With our filtration systems we believe we have something that can change lives.”
The list of recent accomplishments for Purafy Clean Technologies is long and includes a successful validation project with St. Lawrence College and the St. Lawrence River Institute. Through this project, Purafy’s water filtration technology achieved a 99.9999999 percent removal statistic for E.coli and Coliform bacteria. That list also includes an invitation by the U.S. Special Forces for Purafy to demonstrate the Portage filtration system for analysis against their competitor RO Technology. (The U.S. Special Forces will release their findings to Purafy in a paper this year.)
With accomplishments at every turn what’s next for Purafy Clean Technologies? On the engineering side, Purafy’s team continues to pursue additional NSF certifications and applied research collaborations to strengthen their products’ position in the market as the first available graphene-related water treatment technologies. On the business end of things, Purafy plans to roll out additional products later this year while simultaneously working towards fulfilling their sustainable development goal: “Ensure access to water and sanitation for all.”
“When you think of the abundance of freshwater that we have here in Canada and then think of the communities that must boil water for everything as commonly as we boil water for tea, that’s appalling.” Cameron Runte, vice-president of product development with Purafy says, “Imagine if we could change that. With our filtration systems, we believe we have something that can change lives.”
This year, Kingston-based SWITCH is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The organization was formed back in 2002 with the goal of promoting the economic development opportunities of sustainable energy adoption across eastern Ontario and, more specifically, the city of Kingston.
It was founded by visionaries within the Kingston community and, at its peak, included 140 private and public institutions, industry leaders and individual members that have include the likes of Quantum Renewables, Queen’s University, St. Lawrence College, RMC, Utilities Kingston and Sustainable Kingston.
From the very beginning, SWITCH’s mantra has been, “What can be done to lower greenhouse gas emissions?” and knowledge sharing has been the key component. This has been done by way of information sessions on solar electricity and wind energy, government grant programs to incite the adoption of sustainable energy methods, conferences focused on energy, technology literacy and economic opportunities, and monthly open meetings featuring thought leaders and new technologies, products and services in the sustainable energy space.
“Twenty years ago there wasn’t technology as ready as it is now to assist. There was no FIT program, no net metering, there wasn’t an abundance of solar panels and wind farms.” explains David Hyndman, chairman and president of SWITCH. “Helping our community understand these emerging technologies was key. As technology has become more mainstream, our mandate has changed from education for the sake of education to, ‘What’s new, what’s coming, what are the emerging trends?’ We want to keep up with what’s happening in this broad bubble of sustainable technologies, and knowledge sharing is key to the organization’s success.”
That said, one of the biggest benefits of SWITCH is the networking opportunities, and the chance to connect multiple resources to facilitate change. These opportunities have been a big draw for tech innovators who are able to educate everyone about the benefits of their technology.
When asked whether the pandemic has created more opportunities to make environmental progress, Hyndman replied, “The pandemic has shown the world that when there is a true crisis, government and society can react very quickly. The hope is that we’ll take that mindset and apply it to climate change. But it’s going to take getting out of our comfort zones and embracing change. Encouraging sustainable energy adoption is one technical component of the solution and SWITCH is good at that.”