UBC spin-off wins $3 million grant in global carbon reduction competition

Arman Bonakdarpour and David Wilkinson


Mangrove Water Technologies, a new UBC spin-off company, will receive up to $3 million to help commercialize a technology developed at UBC that simultaneously converts carbon dioxide and saline wastewater into value-added chemicals and reusable water. Its economic and environmental impacts could be considerable.

Formed by past and present members of professor David Wilkinson’s research group in the UBC Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Mangrove is one of four winners of the second round of the Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) Grand Challenge: Innovative Carbon Uses, a multi-year, three-round global competition. In 2014, Wilkinson’s group was one of 24 first round winners, each of whom received a $500,000 prize.

The four winning projects are eligible for up to $10 million in additional funding through the final round of the competition.

Oil and gas operations produce, among other things, significant amounts of waste in the form of carbon dioxide and saline wastewater. Mangrove’s technology — an electrochemical reactor equipped with ion-selective membranes — desalinates the wastewater and converts the carbon dioxide into carbonate salts and acids for on-site use by the oil and gas industry.    

Easy to operate, transport, and scale to industrial levels, the modularly designed technology offers an economical alternative to conventional desalination and CO2 removal processes. Indeed, it has the potential to significantly reduce global carbon emissions and help conserve water reserves around the world.

When coupled with a waste gas-to-power system, Mangrove’s technology could be capable of removing in excess of one megatonne of CO2 (equivalent to the annual carbon emissions from 210,000 cars) and conserving more than 11 million barrels of water (equivalent to 770 Olympic-sized swimming pools) each year in Alberta alone.

Innovation and commercialization at UBC

Since making its initial discovery, Wilkinson’s team has collaborated with various groups at UBC — the University-Industry Liaison Office (UILO), entrepreneurship@UBC, and Creative Destruction Lab - West — to build the technology and its commercial potential into a viable business venture capable of attracting significant funding.

“We are delighted to hear of this recognition for UBC’s latest spin-off company,” said Paul Cyr, Technology Transfer Manager at the UILO. “We have been fortunate to work closely with the research team throughout the development of this technology and its transition into the company for commercialization. The award is a testament not only to the outstanding quality of the Wilkinson group’s research, but also to UBC’s innovation ecosystem, where promising discoveries can be translated into companies to make a positive impact.”

Founded by Wilkinson, Saad Dara, Alfred Lam and Arman Bonakdarpour, Mangrove grew out of research conducted in Wilkinson’s lab at the UBC Clean Energy Research Centre. Dara, who is completing his PhD thesis on the technology in the lab, will lead the company as CEO. Lam was Wilkinson’s first PhD student at UBC and is currently a Vice President at Chrysalix Venture Capital. Bonakdarpour, also a UBC alumnus, is a research associate in the Wilkinson group.

A graduate of UBC in chemical engineering and the University of Ottawa in chemistry, Wilkinson, who has been granted over 80 patents, has long been a leading figure in the fields of electrochemical engineering and fuel cell and battery technology. Prior to joining UBC in 2004 as a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Clean Energy and Fuel Cells, Wilkinson had over 20 years of industrial leadership experience, including as Vice President of Research and Development at Ballard Power Systems, where he was part of one of Canada’s largest IPOs.

The ERA Grand Challenge

The ERA Grand Challenge aims to identify technologies or processes that repurpose captured carbon dioxide into valuable goods or materials. Round two was specifically focused on supporting “projects that can be commercialized in Alberta by 2020, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one net megatonne annually.”

To demonstrate their technology’s commercialization potential, Mangrove partnered with NORAM Engineering and Constructors, Calgary-based Questor Technology, and the Saskatchewan Research Council to integrate a pilot reactor into a waste gas-to-power system at a Questor site in Alberta. Over the next two years, Mangrove will continue to develop and commercialize its reactor technology in preparation for the final round of the competition in 2019, when one group will receive a $10 million grant to fund further commercialization of its technology in Alberta.

In addition to the ERA funding, this UBC technology has received financial support from Western Economic Diversification, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.

The winners of the second round of the ERA Grand Challenge were announced at the Propel Energy Tech forum in Calgary on March 1, 2017.