UBC spin-off companies win $2 million for carbon removal technology

UBC spin-off Carbin Minerals will receive $1 million from XPRIZE and the Musk Foundation to remove thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The prize is part of the XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition, funded by Elon Musk and the Musk Foundation. (Another UBC spin-off, Takachar, won the student version of the XPRIZE last year and will receive an additional $1 million this year.)

In this Q&A, Carbin Minerals founders Dr. Greg Dipple and Bethany Ladd discuss what the future holds for their company. Dr. Dipple is a professor at UBC’s Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Ladd is a research scientist in the same department.

How does your technology work?

Ladd: Carbon dioxide is removed from the air naturally through weathering, where certain rocks absorb the greenhouse gas and turn it into a mineral. The result is carbon stored in a solid form as carbonate rock. Our lab has developed research to speed up this process of mineralization from thousands of years to weeks, even days. This involved understanding mineralogical, geochemical, and physical variables and how they interact with one another in order to maximize the rate of mineralization. By partnering with mines, we can transform mine tailings — huge piles of pulverized rock — into what are essentially giant carbon sinks. The science is based on natural processes; the key is figuring out how to accelerate and optimize carbon uptake in tailings so that it is economically feasible on a large scale.

Dipple: Mineralization happens on its own in mine tailings and at a slow rate, but faster than what we as scientists had expected. Understanding why it is happening helps us to identify which sites have the right conditions to work at with an industrial project, and understanding what is limiting the rates helps to identify what we need to do to speed it up even more.

What will you do with the prize?

Ladd: In our application, we showed how we would remove 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at one mine site by 2024, and potentially remove mega- and giga-tonnes in the future. We can do this by deploying the technology at mine sites around the world and implementing another new technology we’re currently working on. The XPRIZE money will help us set up our first pilot, hire a team, purchase equipment, and start fulfilling carbon removal contracts. And we’re in the running for the grand prize of $50 million.

What are your other visions for the future?

Ladd: Our long-term goal is to remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as possible, storing it safely and durably as rock. There is an enormous amount of carbon removal potential laying dormant in mine waste around the world, and it is only going to increase as the world’s demand for critical metals grows to supply the clean energy transition. We are working to unlock that potential so we can tangibly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and truly turn the dial on climate change.

Dipple: In the process we will be decarbonizing the supply chain of metals for renewable electricity and transformation of the transportation sector.  Thus we make the pathway to renewable energy and electrical transport less carbon-intensive in terms of the manufacture of the equipment, and we also provide carbon removal credits for those parts of our economy that are more difficult to decarbonize.

We’re also working with a company to develop robots, like Roombas but the size of a car, that can work on rock slurry. Certain tailings are made of fine rock, almost sand, that can be deposited as a slurry of rock and water. This slurry is like quicksand, so it’s dangerous for humans, but robots could safely work on it to implement our carbon-sink process.