L: Carbon fibres under electron microscope. R, top: a prosthetic leg. R, bottom: Carbon fibre bike.

Left, carbon fibres under electron microscope, (courtesy Chester Upham);
right, a prosthesis and a mountain bike made from carbon fibres (iStock).

Is it possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while creating useful products? 

Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) are tackling this challenge head-on. 

From Waste to Want: CO2 Conversion to Liquid Fuels and Solid Carbon Fibres project, which the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) has awarded $180,000 over three years, is working to develop a new process for transforming carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane into liquid fuels and solid carbon fibres. 

Over these next three years, UBC researchers will work to better understand and control a catalyst reaction that will capture the carbon needed to create these products. A pilot unit is planned for operation in the Clean Energy Research Centre (CERC) at UBC. 

Project partners include Exaer Carbon, Paper Excellence Canada, and Catalyst Agri-Innovations Society

“It’s an exciting way to convert CO2 into useful products,” says Dr. Chester Upham, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at UBC, and principal investigator for the project. 

Associate professor Chester Upham (left) and Professor Xiaotao (Tony) Bi
Professor Xiaotao (Tony) Bi (left) and associate professor Chester Upham,  principal investigators.

“Instead of taking crude oil and converting it to gasoline, we're taking CO2 and methane and converting it to gasoline,” he says, “which we can then use instead of just releasing it into the atmosphere.” 

The project’s other product — solid carbon fibres — is the foundation for countless everyday items, such as bike frames, aircraft wings, car components, and sports and medical equipment. 

“The benefits of making that carbon as a solid form is that it’s a saleable product, and you’re not making a product that will re-release captured CO2 into the air,” Upham says. 

Exaer Carbon will use their expertise in carbon upgrading to turn the carbon fibres produced at UBC into a commercially viable material.  

“If you can really cost-effectively convert greenhouse gases into products of value, you’re creating this market for it that could potentially displace trillions of dollars’ worth of industry and billions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions globally,” says David Garfield, founder and CEO of Exaer Carbon. “You could change the entire materials paradigm.” 

Paper Excellence Canada and Catalyst Agri-Innovations Society will assess the environmental impacts and economic performance of a technology and help plan the demonstration and piloting efforts. 

“We are particularly interested in this technology because pulp and paper mills produce biogenic CO2 when we burn bark and lignin to power our mills,” says Davis Chiu, director of innovation for Paper Excellence Canada and acting head of carbon strategy for the Paper Excellence Group.  

“This research provides a promising pathway to capture this CO2 and use it to produce items of value. The technical mill-based information we provide researchers will help ensure the process they develop can be easily used by pulp and paper mills.” 

Research Partners

Principal Investigators

Solution Seekers

  • Catalyst Agri-Innovations Society
  • Exaer Carbon
  • Paper Excellence Canada