Ottawa startup sees ocean of opportunities in new carbon-capture technology

Planetary Hydrogen
Planetary Hydrogen co-founders (from left) Mike Kelland, Sadaf Tahmasebi and Brock Battochio. Photo courtesy Richard Kelland

An Ottawa software engineer is hoping to turn his passion for protecting the environment into a billion-dollar technology that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and creates a green alternative to fossil fuels.

Mike Kelland, a serial entrepreneur and avid outdoorsman ​– “(I) sort of grew up in a canoe, is the way I put it,” he says with a chuckle – is one of the driving forces behind Planetary Hydrogen. The Ottawa-based startup, which launched last fall, is the result of Kelland’s quest to find what he calls a “climate unicorn” – a technology that can fight climate change and also have global market potential.

Kelland thinks he’s found it. After selling his previous company, local tech firm BoldRadius Solutions, he and a young engineer he was mentoring, Brock Battochio, began researching various technologies to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the hope of finding a product that could be scaled for a global market.

“We were looking for something that was disruptive,” he says.

Their search led them to Greg Rau, a California-based marine scientist. With $600,000 in financial backing from the Capital Angel Network, Toronto-based Ramen Ventures and other local investors, they began working on technology that speeds up the earth’s natural process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

In a nutshell, the natural geological process of scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air works like this: carbon dioxide dissolves into rainwater, which then falls on rocks. Over time, rocks absorb carbon dioxide, consuming the gas and creating a mineral-based bicarbonate akin to baking soda that gets washed into the ocean. 

Centuries-long process

As effective as it may be, it’s also a glacially slow process that can take hundreds of centuries, Kelland notes.

“We don’t have 100,000 years to fix this problem,” he says. “How can we speed that process up? Effectively, that's what our process does.”  

Planetary Hydrogen’s patented system, dubbed SeaOH2, uses an electric current to split ocean water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. 

Known as electrolysis, that process isn’t groundbreaking in itself. But by adding a mineral salt to the electrolysis cell, the company’s engineers have created an atmosphere-scrubbing compound called mineral hydroxide as a waste product. The hydroxide binds with carbon dioxide, effectively “capturing” the greenhouse gas while producing hydrogen as a potentially lucrative byproduct.

“It’s a very natural process, but it’s accelerated,” Kelland says.

“We don’t have 100,000 years to fix this problem. How can we speed that process up? Effectively, that's what our process does.”

As much as Kelland the environmentalist believes the company’s carbon-capture technology could benefit the planet, Kelland the businessman sees plenty of upside as well.  

Hydrogen – which is now used mainly in petroleum refining to help convert crude oil into gasoline and diesel fuel as well as in the production of ammonia for fertilizers – is already a $150-billion global industry, he notes. 

But the International Energy Agency is forecasting the worldwide market for the gas will double in the next decade and could increase tenfold by 2050. 

Hydrogen is seen as a potential green-energy alternative to fossil fuels in cases where electric power isn’t practical, such as jet aircraft and supertanker transport ships. It’s also being eyed as a cleaner-burning substitute for coke, the coal-based fuel used to produce steel.

“You can’t do a battery-powered 747,” Kelland says, calling hydrogen the “fuel of the future.”

With potential uses for hydrogen poised to skyrocket, Kelland calls it a “happy accident” that Planetary Hydrogen’s technology – should it prove successful on a wide scale – would generate a massive new supply of the element.

Kelland isn’t the only one who appears to bullish on Planetary Hydrogen’s potential. 

The company was recently accepted into a 12-week cleantech accelerator program hosted by Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service, which runs this fall. The founders will be paired virtually with leading industry mentors and get a chance to show off their technology to potential investors.  

“Longer term, hopefully it sows the seeds for some future corporate partnerships,” Kelland says.

The fledgling firm also beefed up its C-suite last month, bringing Halifax-based Carl Poirier, who’s held senior engineering posts at Imperial Oil and Stantec, on board as vice-president of engineering. Kelland and his leadership group are also talking to potential investment partners in North America, Europe and Australia about securing more funding for the pilot project.

Still, while the young enterprise is gaining momentum, Kelland concedes the firm is still “a long way away from commercialization.” He predicts it will be at least five years before the technology can be truly proven effective enough to go to market. 

In the meantime, Kelland says, they’ll just keep plugging away.

“There’s a lot of potential opportunities out there,” he says.