New green solution unveiled at COP26
GHG-reduction tech developed by UdeS chosen as one of the most promising on the planet
Sherbrooke, le 10 novembre 2021 – The ability to directly capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it to decontaminate asbestos sites is the ingenious idea behind Skyrenu, a dual-purpose green technology developed by a student team from the Faculty of Engineering at the Université de Sherbrooke (UdeS) and INRS and that is a finalist in a prestigious international competition that could lead to a $50-million prize.
Skyrenu was one of 20 student projects from around the world chosen through the XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition launched by renowned engineer and entrepreneur Elon Musk.
The race is on to reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, and student researchers at UdeS are among those at the head of the pack. This invention by the team from the Faculty of Engineering received a US$250,000 prize on November 10 at the COP26 Climate Change Conference. This money will go toward refining the technology to qualify for the $50-million grand prize that will be awarded by the Musk Foundation in 2025.
According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), if we want to keep the global temperature increase to below 2 °C, we have to eliminate 10 gigatonnes of CO2 every year between now and 2060.
The Skyrenu team will contribute to this colossal project by scaling up its tech over multiple stages: “Over the next 6 months, we have to get our machine to capture up to 1 kg of CO2 per day,” explained Alexandre Camiré, a master’s student in mechanical engineering and the leader of the student team. “As we work on this component, our partner, the INRS, will run a proof of concept to demonstrate that our tech can sequester 1 tonne of CO2 per year. In Phase 2, we will perform another scale-up to capture and sequester 10 tonnes of CO2 per year.” The team will carry out this work to meet the competition goals of capturing and sequestering 1,000 tonnes of CO2 per year by 2025 and demonstrate its future capacity to reach 1 gigatonne of CO2 per year.
Neutralizing asbestos waste with CO2
Once captured, CO2 must be stored somewhere for millions of years or put to a specific use. This is called sequestration. The Skyrenu process is not only ingenious but also provides a solution to another environmental problem: disposing of asbestos waste.
“Quebec has billions of tonnes of mine tailings, such as asbestos in the Eastern Townships,” explained mechanical engineering professor Martin Brouillette, who supervises the team. “Asbestos is a perfect material to react with CO2, as carbon accelerates the breakdown of asbestos, which then becomes inert. The tailings turn into simple gravel that can be used, for example, as backfill for asbestos sites to restore the landscape to what it was 150 years ago.”
Patented in 2020, the Skyrenu technology in fact kills two birds with one stone: it reduces GHG in the atmosphere that we cannot avoid generating (such as from the aviation sector) and turns mining waste that is dangerous for the environment and public health into something harmless.
Skyrenu also runs on hydroelectricity, which is a green energy. All of these factors won over the jury of the XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition, which opens up unprecedented opportunities for the winning teams to expand and develop their technologies. In 2025, the final stage of the competition will award $100 million in prizes.
“Hard to turn a blind eye”
This is not Professor Brouillette's first invention. For example, in recent years, he developed a medical technology to unclog arteries. His interest in environmental solutions is relatively new.
“My children will be the ones paying the price for climate change,” said Professor Brouillette, who knew nothing aboutCO2 capture at the start of the project. “I wanted to do something. In 2018, I hired a student at the end of his PhD program named Gabriel Vézina so that we could find a solution to climate change together. That’s how the project got off the ground.”
Environmental concerns are also a priority for Alexandre Camiré, who was originally on track to work in aeronautics: “After doing an internship with Professor Brouillette, I realized the magnitude of climate issues across the planet. It's hard to turn a blind eye. I find this cause very motivating, and remembering its impact makes us want to push this technology even further.”
The second part of the XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition will take place in February 2022 and will open up to teams other than student ones (e.g., SMEs, start-ups). All selected teams (students and others) will compete for the grand prize in 2025.
The Skyrenu technology is currently owned by TransferTech Sherbrooke, UdeS's development company that protects the university’s intellectual property and markets it to high-tech companies. TransferTech also identifies funding opportunities to support the development of inventions, as it did with Skyrenu.
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Geneviève Lussier, Media Relations Advisor
Communications Department | Université de Sherbrooke
819-821-8000, extension 65472 | medias@USherbrooke.ca