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Put your grain of salt in the machine

Ulrich Legrand does not think small. With Electro Carbon, the only company in the world specializing in the conversion of CO2 into biodegradable de-icing salt, the 31-year-old researcher intends to contribute to Canada's carbon neutrality objectives by 2050.

It was during his postdoctoral studies in chemical engineering at McGill University that Ulrich Legrand realized the enormous potential of his research. His work, which focuses on the transformation of carbon dioxide (CO2) by electrolysis, is timely.

“Electrochemical CO2 conversion was a hot topic in laboratories, but there was a big gap in bringing this technology to industrial scale. I said to myself that we had to do something with this,” he recalls.

In 2019, he created, with Martin Larocque, the company Electro Carbon , with the aim of commercializing his technology. Their idea is to propose a complete system for recycling CO2: rather than using electrochemical cells specific to laboratory research, they have filed a patent on a type of cell which will be functional on a large scale and integrated into the electrolyser.

Once implemented, the system will be able to recover CO2 by transforming it into potassium formate, in other words formate salt, a material commonly used in the country for de-icing airport runways and roads.

A “two for one”

Currently in the final phase of financing, the company plans to inaugurate, over the next 18 months, at the Chimie Parachem factory in Montreal, a first semi-commercial unit which will produce the equivalent of 100 tonnes of formate salt per year.

The test unit, which will be housed in a six-meter container, will be connected to the CO2 capture system of Cycle Carbone, a project overseen by Polytechnique Montréal and directed by Professor Louis Fradette.

Once the test stage is completed, the team wants to move into the commercialization phase with the installation, over the next 10 years, of around twenty units capable of each generating 5,000 tonnes of formate salt annually. Each unit would save 10,750 tonnes of CO2 equivalent ; that's as much as the annual carbon footprint of a little over a thousand Quebecers! The technology makes it possible to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions directly (CO2 which is directly converted) and indirectly (GHG avoided compared to traditional production methods).

“This year we are mainly focusing on technological development. It’s going to be intense to get there! » confides Ulrich Legrand. Intense, but promising: not only will the technology developed by Electro Carbon make it possible to recycle CO2, but it will transform it into a value-added product since the salt produced will be biodegradable... without being more expensive.

We are slowly approaching municipalities, but there is still a lot of work to do to change old habits. -Ulrich Legrand

A winning “two for one”: “It will be exactly the same product, but with an environmental benefit,” explains the researcher. The de-icing salt currently used, from the oil industry, requires several manufacturing steps, whereas we only have one! »

Change old habits

If the company intends to first focus on the aviation market, a large consumer of formate salt, Ulrich Legrand does not hide his interest in Quebec municipalities: “They dump 1.4 million tonnes of salt every year of roads on the roads; in Canada, we are talking about 5 million tonnes per year! These salts cause serious damage to structures and pollute groundwater. We are slowly approaching municipalities, but there is still a lot of work to do to change old habits. »

“It’s a bit like playing with Lego, but on another level,” jokes Ulrich Legrand when asked about what motivated him to pursue a career as a scientist. The researcher, sensitive to environmental issues, is aware of the scale of the task to be accomplished: “We do not pretend to come up with THE miracle solution. We must consider that there are a multitude of solutions that complement each other, and that it is all of these methods together that will make things happen. »

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For more information about Electro Carbon, our world’s cleanest potassium formate, or to submit a speculative application.

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