With climate change already on course to cause widespread famine, extreme weather, and the submersion of whole countries in the near present, it’s become more important than ever to put the brakes on rising temperatures. How? By keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
Businesses like Tesla and Volvo have been recently celebrated for their efforts to build fleets of vehicles that run on electricity—a move that will prevent huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants from entering the atmosphere. But while car manufactures are slowly catching on to the shift in renewable fuels, Vancouver company Corvus Energy is thinking bigger.
Corvus is a large-scale producer of batteries that can be used in huge ships, port equipment, and off-shore oil rigs. Working on making its lithium ion cells as efficient as possible, the start-up has already made a difference by transforming the toxic emissions pumped out by the maritime industry.
“The worst fuel used by big ocean-going vessels is called ‘heavy fuel oil’,” says Sean Puchalski, VP of strategic marketing and accounts at Corvus. “If ships are operating in an area where there’s not a limit on emissions, they produce a ton of carbon dioxide, sulfur oxide, nitrous oxide, and particulate matter. Basically, it’s all the bad stuff that’s already been regulated out of on-the-road vehicles. Obviously it’s terrible for the environment to have these huge vessels creating those kinds of waste products, which can be very harmful. With our batteries, it’s possible to get big ships and heavy equipment down to the equivalent of a car’s emissions.”
Corvus is able to replace marine diesel and heavy fuel oil engines by transforming the vessel into either a hybrid or all-electric ship. With an operating model similar to the Tesla, the batteries drive the boat, deal with any on-board energy usage, and are then recharged at the port. Corvus’s technology can mean that there are no generators on board, no emissions, and the ships make considerably less noise.
That might seem like an obvious solution to the problem of maritime pollution—so why has it taken a company so long to get to this point?
“In the early trials, the battery technology just couldn’t stand up to the requirements on ships,” Puchalski says. “People tried with lead-acid, but you needed so much of the materials that it wasn’t practical from a weight or volume perspective. There were other types of batteries in the running, but they had some practical constraints, like the operating temperature. When people realized that lithium ion batteries were the best, they were just in cellphones and laptops. It really wasn’t until the early 2000s when people started making large lithium ion cells, and that’s when our company founders started the business.”
Corvus’s niche lies in its ability to ruggedize the batteries to withstand corrosion from the sea’s salty air—and its ability to reach burgeoning markets. Recognizing that higher fuel prices and taxes mean that the price at the pump in Europe can be double that of North America, Corvus installs a lot of its batteries in ships based in the north of the continent. On top of that, Scandinavian governments have high-value programs that offer ferry fleets huge grants for ships that run on clean energy, offering a high return on investment for the company’s product.
While Europe is touting itself as an ecological hub, however, Vancouver is also a global front-runner for going green. Fast becoming a nucleus for cleantech companies, the city is cementing Canada’s image as a forward-thinking and environmentally conscious nation—something that Puchalski is particularly proud of.
“Green startups are one of the fastest growing sectors in the country,” he says. “It’s a very exciting place to work and it’s developing some unique talents. In the Lower Mainland in particular, we have a cleantech centre of excellence growing.
“Some of the ferries we’ve modified have been the equivalent to taking 900 to 1,000 mid-sized Sedans off the roads,” he continues. “We’re excited that Canadian companies are making that kind of impact.”
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