Turning CO2 into shampoo and lawn furniture? U of T startup doing what ‘no one has done before’
When Christine Gabardo joined CERT Systems in 2019, she found herself in the midst of a five-year global competition to address rising greenhouse gas with breakthrough technologies.
The team had reached the semi-finals of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE thanks to a process that fuses chemistry, materials science and mechanical engineering to transform CO2 into ethylene – used to make an assortment of everyday items, from shampoo to fabricated plastics and mattresses.
Gabardo took a lead role in helping CERT – which grew out of research in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering – advance all the way to the finals by scaling up their reactor, originally the size of a Rubik’s cube cell, by more than 10,000 times to process 100 kilograms of CO2 per day.
“I found it really interesting that electrochemistry could be used to tackle one of our world’s biggest challenges, which is climate change,” says Gabardo, the co-founder and director of technology at CERT and a former U of T post-doctoral researcher.
“It’s exciting to get to work with cutting-edge technology, especially on something no one has done before.”
At present, fossil fuels are used to produce an estimated 158,000,000 tons of ethylene per year.
CERT, by contrast, uses water and electricity to turn waste CO2 into ethylene and other carbon-based fuels using an electrocatalyst operating at room temperature and atmospheric pressure. The catalyst is able to break and reform CO2 into larger, valuable molecules with electricity and protons from water. The process allows CERT to make a chemically identical ethylene otherwise produced from fossil fuels.
“If we can decarbonize ethylene production, then we can decarbonize all of the materials that are downstream from it,” says Gabardo, who is also a research associate in the Sinton Group.
“That will help tackle CO2 emissions from the chemical industry all the way down to consumer goods.”
Co-founded by Gabardo and Alex Ip, CERT is backed by research from two engineering lab groups; the Sinton Group, led by David Sinton, a professor in the department of mechanical and industrial engineering, and the Sargent Group‘s Ted Sargent, who was then based in the Edward S. Rogers Sr. department of electrical and computer engineering.
CERT is also supported by Breakthrough Energy Solutions Canada, which brings some of the nation’s top clean energy leaders and investors together to accelerate companies offering new solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
For Gabardo, balancing the worlds of science, technology and entrepreneurship has always been in the cards. She says she’s been fascinated with the idea of inventing things since childhood.
“I’ve always been interested in starting a company,” says Gabardo. “I just didn’t know when in my career that would happen.”
“I thought, ‘I just want to join a startup,’” Gabardo says.
Like fellow co-founder Ip, Gabardo came from a technical background. She studied electrical and biomedical engineering at McMaster University, where she developed electrochemical devices for point-of-care diagnostics for infectious diseases. While her technical skills were transferable to scaling CERT’s CO2 conversion technology during the XPRIZE competition, the company also needed support to grow the business beyond academia and into commercialization.
So, CERT leaned on U of T’s entrepreneurship community – in particular, the University of Toronto Early Stage Technology Program (UTEST). The program supports U of T entrepreneurs who are building research-based companies and offers a range of services, including investment capital, business strategy and mentoring. That includes providing startups with educational and networking support through MaRS, an intensive entrepreneurial education program that connects entrepreneurs with a range of local professionals and investors.
“It’s not obvious how you even start a company,” Gabardo says. “We were able to tap into the startup community at U of T and ask valuable questions. Just being honest about what you need help with and asking for resources will accelerate how you can get started.”
With a lab currently under construction on U of T’s downtown campus, CERT will soon be able to continue their work where their journey first began. The pilot unit will allow CERT to continue to refine their process in order to improve their efficiency and produce ethylene and other products (such as ethanol) at a meaningful scale.
For Sinton, the move couldn’t come at a better time, particularly with the university’s plan to achieve a climate positive St. George campus by 2050.
“U of T has been hugely supportive of the project,” Sinton says. “They’ve embraced us and looked at this pilot plant as a U of T facility – and one that is now coming home.
“CERT and the team are in an exciting place. They’re really mature for a startup company and have the opportunity to grow quickly because of all the work they’ve done with their technology.”
Gabardo says CERT is currently focused on growing its team, exploring raising seed funding, as well as forging more strategic partnerships. In the next five years, Gabardo hopes to increase the capacity of CO2 that CERT’s pilot reactor can process per day, scale into a commercial unit and work with industrial partners to produce valuable products.
She makes it a priority to mentor and support other women in the lab and co-op students who work for CERT, saying it is important to ensure women see themselves in leadership roles.
“It’s hard to enter a field where it’s typically male-dominated and there aren’t that many people you can relate to,” Gabardo says. “Trying to be that example for other people is something that I think is important.
“If you’re interested in something and have the passion to pursue it, don’t let people’s opinions stop you. Continue working on it no matter what.”
By: Tina Adamopoulos
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