Shaking up our lifestyle habits to combat climate change can feel daunting at times. Even as innovations in clean energy abound—from smart thermostats to electric vehicles to solar panels—we’re often stymied by our excruciatingly slow pace of change.
While small adjustments in our habits are simple enough, major change is harder to muster for both individuals and industries. Which is why any carbon capture solution that combines carbon reduction with minimal disruption to our lives is a win-win for us and the Earth.
Read more: What is carbon capture?
Canadian startup, CleanO2, is one such purveyor of practical solutions that makes tackling climate change easier and more interesting.
Carbon capture technology that started out in a garage in Alberta
What could be simpler (and more gratifying) than washing carbon down the drain?
CleanO2 is the first company in the world to turn carbon dioxide emissions into natural soap. It’s no coincidence that the technology was developed by a plumber from Calgary whose experience in the industry (which included HVAC installation and repair) inspired his efforts to develop carbon-cutting technology that was both practical and effective.
But making soap from captured carbon?
That was never part of the plan for CleanO2 co-founder Jaeson Cardiff when, in 2005, he began tinkering in his garage to invent a machine that could capture carbon from commercial building furnaces. His endeavour was sparked by the magazine, Popular Mechanics, which invited subscribers to submit DIY inventions for a chance to be published in an issue.
“Originally it was just a little project, but the more time we spent on it, the more we realized that there was a bigger opportunity at play to actually have a strong impact in addressing greenhouse gas emissions,” says Cardiff, who recruited chemist (and CleanO2 co-founder) Kathy Fisher to help.
It started with reducing greenhouse gas emissions in commercial buildings
It was through sheer determination and patience to find a way to decarbonize the heating industry that they eventually created CarbinX, Cardiff explains. Installed in commercial buildings, the device reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced from the industrial furnaces and boilers used to heat them.
While the rest of the energy industry focused mainly on maximizing efficiencies, says Cardiff, he wanted to tackle the emissions that are unavoidable. “In Canada, we will continue to require the use of natural gas to keep northern communities warm during the winter,” he attests, which means some emissions are simply unavoidable. CarbinX helps prevent these emissions produced to heat our buildings from entering the atmosphere.
How does CarbinX capture carbon dioxide?
About the size of two refrigerators, a CarbinX device works by connecting to a building’s heating appliance (furnace or water boiler). Once installed, it captures carbon dioxide produced from the appliance and permanently sequesters it as potassium carbonate (pearl ash). As far as clean energy innovations go, this one is incredibly practical and accessible, putting the power to reduce GHG emissions in the hands of individual building owners and operators.
Cardiff attributes this pragmatic approach to his trades experience. “Tradespeople can provide a tremendous amount of value to solving problems. What gives us a different perspective is that typically tradespeople approach things from a practical standpoint.”
For Cardiff, that meant recognizing the need to develop a technology that would not be a liability to his customers, but a benefit, instead.
A practical solution to reducing carbon emissions
“Building owners are very practical, especially when it comes to operating expenditures,” says Cardiff, who created a compelling business model that made economic sense to his customers.
“I had to ask what value can I give the customer that accomplishes the same goal that we’re trying to achieve, which is to reduce carbon emissions.”
The device saves its owners money on heating bills because the CarbinX process creates heat, which in turn, reduces the amount of heat the furnace needs to generate. CarbinX also provides complimentary maintenance on its machines to ensure they’re always running smoothly.
Cleaning up our carbon emissions with CleanO2 soap
And then there’s the soap—an accidental by-product of CarbinX that has, ironically, helped raise the profile of the company.
By chance, Cardiff and his wife discovered pearl ash makes an ideal ingredient in soaps.
“We just made a batch of soap in our kitchen and presented it to the utilities and they loved them.”
Demand for the bars increased rapidly which spurred the founding of CleanO2. The carbon is permanently sequestered in all its pearl ash-based products, which includes cleaning products and fertilizers.
Does using the soap release carbon again?
Even after the soap evaporates into suds, carbon is not released again into the environment, explains Cardiff.
He uses the analogy of salt to clarify: “If you dump salt into a glass of water, the salt dissolves. Then if you evaporate the water by boiling it, you’re left with the salt residue again. The same happens with the carbon in our products.”
Where can you buy a CleanO2 soap bar?
The award-winning soap bars are now available online and at select stores across Canada, including Canadian Tire, Safeway, and Healthy Planet. They’re also baked into the CarbinX business model as a cash back program for CarbinX customers. Profits earned on CleanO2 products are shared among CarbinX users either as a cheque or free product.
“A hotel goes through a lot of cleaning goods, so we can provide free soaps and detergents in lieu of cash to help cover their needs for the year,” explains Cardiff.
Sights set on decarbonizing the heating industry
Ultimately, decarbonizing the heating industry is the main focus for the company founders. While the current CarbinX reduces about 20 per cent of greenhouse gases, the latest version in development will reduce up to 50 per cent.
“Our long term goal is to get to 100 per cent reduction,” says Cardiff, who remains hopeful that innovation in the industry will rapidly evolve in all segments of society.
“I hope I’ve inspired others to realize that if a plumber can go out and help tackle a problem like climate change, what’s stopping anyone else from trying.”
Read more: 6 innovative carbon capture technologies
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