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Rowe School alumna leads team towards Carbon XPrize

Posted by Miriam Breslow on January 10, 2017 in Alumni & Friends, News
Jennifer Wagner (centre) and some of her teammates

Jennifer Wagner wants to save the world—and she wouldn’t mind leading a team to win $16 million along the way. The Dalhousie MBA graduate (2010) is now Vice-President Sustainability at CarbonCure Technologies, a company that recycles carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in concrete. Wagner and CarbonCure are leading a team of engineers and entrepreneurs into the semifinals of the prestigious NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize global competition.

Though Wagner has an MBA, her academic career began with a BSc at McGill. She returned to her hometown of Halifax to complete a master’s in chemistry, and along the way developed a new passion: sustainability. She decided to pursue an MBA in Dalhousie’s Faculty of Management where she majored in finance but also branched out. “Any time I had a chance to take an elective I went to the School for Resource and Environmental Studies, because that was where my passion was,” she explains.

During her MBA, Wagner joined a student consulting group and discovered her talent for consulting. “We made almost $100,000 in revenue that year,” she says, “and we did some research for NSCC that really opened my eyes to where sustainability and innovation—my two passions—intersect.” Aiming for a career in sustainability, Wagner networked broadly, eventually meeting environmental engineer Robert Niven in the last year of her MBA. “We were talking about climate change and carbon management in Halifax, which at that time was very limited,” recalls Wagner. “When Rob learned what I was doing, he said, ‘Oh, I can probably hire you for something.’” Niven brought Wagner into his business, Carbon Sense Solutions, as an analyst to assist with carbon management consulting and technology development. Carbon Sense has since evolved into CarbonCure, and Wagner has evolved into a VP.

CarbonCure’s technology, explains Wagner, is a type of “carbon utilization”, a relatively new technology class that has the potential to reduce global carbon emissions by 15%. “To date, the main way to reduce CO2 was through carbon sequestration, where CO2 is just pumped underground,” she says. “With carbon utilization, rather than just getting rid of it, you’re actually using CO2 to make better products.” Carbon emissions, says Wagner, can be used as an ingredient in everything from fuel to fish food to protein powder—or, in CarbonCure’s case, concrete.

 “We’ve developed a clean technology for the concrete industry,” says Wagner. “We inject CO2 from industrial sources like power plants into concrete, and the CO2 becomes a solid mineral.” This technique not only reduces emissions but results in a high-value product with a huge market, she notes. CarbonCure’s success bears this out: the company started nearly 10 years ago with one customer; it now has over 40, including multinational companies with hundreds of plants. “Some of our customers say that the technology’s a no-brainer,” says Wagner. “We want everyone to say that.”

As governments and private organizations focus more on environmental solutions, funding for carbon utilization is increasing. Wagner explains that carbon utilization is one of the few green technologies likely to thrive under the U.S. Trump administration, given his focus on oil and gas. “I do feel as though CarbonCure is in the right place at the right time,” says Wagner. “And although we’re a small group, we’re definitely punching above our weight, especially with special projects like XPrize.”

The XPrize Foundation provides incentives to solve significant challenges in a variety of fields, with the NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize one of several contests and the second largest prize to date. “The challenge is to convert carbon emissions into a product,” Wagner says. Competitors are scored on how much CO2 their technology converts, the value of the product it produces and the size of the product’s market. Teams are required to demonstrate their technology at a coal plant or a natural gas plant. “We’re competing in both tracks,” says Wagner. “The difference is between coal and natural gas emissions, but with concrete, the source of CO2 makes no difference to performance.” Although other teams are also converting CO2 into concrete, “we’re set apart because of our technology’s scalability,” she says. “Most other solutions within the concrete sector are very high cost, but because CarbonCure makes a retrofit technology, it is low cost. The technology has also already been proven in the market.”

Out of an initial 47 teams, 27 are now semi-finalists. This December, five finalists in each track will each receive $500,000. In 2020, the winner of each track will be declared, with $7.5 million awarded to each. Since CarbonCure is in both tracks, the total stakes for the team are $16 million.

CarbonCure partnered with other organizations to create its XPrize team. The major partners are Praxair, “the largest industrial gas supplier in North America,” and Argos, one of the world’s top cement suppliers. “CarbonCure is the team lead, and the prize is awarded to technologies that convert CO2 emissions to products,” says Wagner. “So if our team wins, we will be awarded the money.” Wagner herself is leading the team. “It’s cool to be one of only three female team leads,” she says, “although it would be nice to see more women involved.”

While $16 million in funding is nothing to sneeze at, Wagner emphasizes the real reason for technology like CarbonCure’s. “With the Paris agreement and recent commitments to lower the Earth’s temperature, if we don’t act now, it’s going to be too late,” she says. “We feel it’s the right time for CarbonCure’s technology to really grow, and start reducing global emissions at a rapid rate.” She describes CarbonCure’s mission: “We want to help solve climate change and also provide economic benefits to the concrete industry.”

CarbonCure’s success and the very existence of this competition have Wagner enthusiastic. “There’s a lot of momentum right now in clean technology, but also specifically CO2 utilization,” she says. “What’s great about our technology is that it not only reduces CO2 but also creates value. We feel this is a winning combination.”