How researchers remade ‘the world’s most widely used petrochemical’ – without using fossil fuels

May 27, 2024

It’s used in everything from shampoo to packaging, but the petrochemical ethylene is ultra carbon intensive. Now, a team at Canada’s top university is creating a sustainable alternative

Portrait of Christine Gabardo
Dr Christine Gabardo, co-founder and chief technology officer at University of Toronto startup CERT Systems. Photograph: Schatzypants Inc

This article was originally published on as part of the University of Toronto and Guardian Labs What’s Possible? Ask Toronto campaign.

Shampoo. Antifreeze. Food packaging. Electronics, textiles and building materials. These things and so many more all have one common ingredient: they contain ethylene, the world’s most widely produced and widely used petrochemical, which is used to help make products lightweight, durable or waterproof.

But producing conventional ethylene releases enormous amounts of greenhouse gases that contribute to the climate crisis. Not only does ethylene use fossil fuels, predominantly natural gas, as a constituent raw material, it also uses fossil fuels as the energy source for its production.

“For every tonne of ethylene, one to two tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted through the conventional manufacturing process,” says Dr Christine Gabardo, a former postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, who is pioneering a breakthrough innovation that makes ethylene without fossil fuels and is ready to scale it up commercially.

Gabardo co-founded CERT Systems Inc, a startup that’s developing the cutting-edge technology necessary to remove fossil fuels both as constituent raw materials of ethylene, as well as from the carbon intensive processes required to produce it.

“Global producers create around 200m tonnes per year of ethylene and that’s expected to grow significantly over the next decade, because ethylene is such an important building block molecule that goes into so many downstream products,” she says.

Derived from ethylene, polyethylene (pictured here in its base form as pellets) is the world’s most commonly produced plastic. Photograph: ScottPaulsonPhotography/Getty Images

Now CERT’s chief technology officer, Gabardo explains that the team has been able to create ethylene using a process called CO2 electrolysis that works at ambient temperatures and the only energy input is renewable electricity. Copper forms the basis of a catalyst that splits water and carbon dioxide, then converts them into hydrocarbons such as ethylene. There are no harmful emissions and all the chemical by-products can be used by various industrial processes.

“The future is electric. We are expected to more than double our renewable electricity capacity in this decade,” says Dr Alex Ip, who co-founded CERT Systems with Gabardo. “This will allow us to transform chemical manufacturing by using CO2 electrolysis and stop our reliance on fossil fuels.”

Derived from ethylene, polyethylene (pictured here in its base form as pellets) is the world’s most commonly produced plastic. Photograph: ScottPaulsonPhotography/Getty Images

Gabardo says that CERT’s mission is to make a big impact with the technology, explaining how this new process actually uses carbon dioxide, either from direct air capture or industrial sources, rather than producing it. “We consume three tonnes of carbon dioxide for every tonne of ethylene that we produce, instead of emitting it through the high-temperature process.”

So with the use of carbon dioxide as a raw material, combined with not producing carbon emissions, Gabardo says that this new method avoids up to five tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions for every tonne of ethylene produced. She adds that this ethylene is chemically identical to regular ethylene, so it won’t need to be recertified – it can simply slot into a vast number of existing industrial applications.

Gabardo’s team of engineers, electrochemists and materials experts first demonstrated this method successfully at lab scale in a container the size of a Rubik’s cube. In 2020, when CERT Systems reached the finals of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition, this was scaled by about 10,000 times to deploy a pilot in a unit the size of a truck container that could process 100kg of carbon dioxide a day. Next, CERT Systems spun out from the university and received grants from Natural Resources Canada to improve the energy efficiency and durability of the process. In 2022, both Gabardo and Ip were named Breakthrough Energy Innovator Fellows by the Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Foundation, receiving funding to demonstrate direct air capture to ethylene. Now, she says, the goal is to apply these improvements to a system that’s significantly larger.

Another CERT Systems co-founder is David Sinton, a professor in mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto, who hopes that the modular nature of this tech will enable commercial scale-up: “Just as web servers have server farms rather than a single huge server, we can multiply the number of units we have and that gives us a pathway, from small- to large-scale,” he says, adding that affordability will be a major challenge.

Prof David Sinton: ‘We need technologies we don’t currently have.’ Photograph: NSERC

“The reason ethylene is produced at such incredible scale is because it’s produced cheaply, and that low price point presents a barrier to new technologies,” says Sinton. “Yes, we’ve got the drive to become global leaders in green energy tech but the bigger motivation is the overall mitigation of CO2 emissions – we need technologies we don’t currently have. Otherwise, our social problems are intractable.”

Gabardo and Sinton agree that diverse thinking is key to problem solving – and just as CERT Systems works with a wide range of academics, the University of Toronto is encouraging greater collaboration between multiple faculties, even at the initial stages of academic research through the new Climate Positive Energy Initiative. Led by Sinton, this centre brings engineers and scientists together with experts in policy, law, business, economics and social sciences to develop clean energy solutions that will be feasible for real world applications. Even if the chemistry works, for example, only an interdisciplinary approach will determine whether certain climate tech will be feasible and accepted by society.

So what’s possible for CERT Systems? With the move towards commercial scale-up, it’s about more than just ethylene. As Gabardo says, by using different catalysts or changing the reaction conditions, other useful building block chemicals could be made using carbon dioxide: “We’re on a mission to transform the way all the world’s most important chemicals are made by using clean electrochemistry,” she says. “At scale, this has the potential to avoid gigatonnes of emissions, so that’s going to make a huge difference as we try to decarbonise our entire manufacturing and energy system.”

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