Montrealer wins Mitacs innovation award

Ulrich Legrand is on a mission to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Even the challenges of a global pandemic haven’t stopped the entrepreneur from advancing his first-of-its-kind technology.

The disruptive system, which converts captured CO2 gas into commercial-grade formic acid – a high value chemical used as a preservative in livestock feed, as well as in the leather tanning and rubber industries – has earned Legrand a prestigious award from Mitacs. It is a national innovation organization that fosters growth by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.

In recognition of his efforts to advance the technology through his startup, Montreal-based Electro Carbon, Legrand – a former Mitacs postdoctoral researcher in the Chemical Engineering department at McGill University, and Electro Carbon Co-founder and CTO – received the Mitacs Environmental Entrepreneur Award on June 10 at a virtual awards ceremony. The Environmental Entrepreneur category recognizes the importance of investing in innovation in clean technology to build a greener and more sustainable future.

Electro Carbon is concentrating its efforts on bringing to market an industrial-scale system capable of doing something useful with carbon after it is successfully removed from the atmosphere.

“Governments and businesses agree that reducing emissions is the right thing to do to protect the environment, but at the same time, they want to see a financial benefit,” Legrand said. “Our technology achieves both goals.”

The Montreal startup’s unique approach is based on a proprietary CO2 electrolyzer system that uses a catalytic converter and electrochemical cell to separate CO2 and water into usable formic acid and oxygen. Each unit, operating continuously on two megawatts of power, is capable of converting more than 4,000 tons of direct CO2 emissions annually, a benefit that is further enhanced by the ability to create valuable formic acid in a cleaner, greener way, explained Legrand.

“Currently, Canadian companies that rely on formic acid are importing it from countries that use traditional production methods, emitting roughly 2.2 tons of harmful carbon into the air each year,” he said.

“When you take this indirect impact into account, each system we build has the potential to reduce global emissions by as much as 12,800 tons, the equivalent of taking 3,000 cars off the road each year.”

Working in collaboration with Canada’s National Centre for Electrochemistry and Environmental Technologies (CNETE) and a partners, Legrand and Electro Carbon co-founder Martin Larocque have successfully developed a working prototype of their CO2 electrolyzer and are awaiting the results from their latest round of testing at the CNETE lab, which is expected to validate the technology’s ability to scale.

Legrand and Larocque hope their company will become a global leader in this growing field – cementing Montreal and Quebec as a hub where innovative, green businesses can grow and thrive.

“We anticipate fast growth from there, because once it’s proven that the technology can go from the lab to an industrial system, that’s where the magic happens,” said Larocque, adding that the company will be seeking investors to help springboard its growth.

At the same time, Electro Carbon is investigating possible future uses for formic acid, including next-generation fuel cells in the automotive industry, where formic acid is proving to be a safer, more practical solution compared to hydrogen. “Not only are we solving the problem of what to do with carbon once its removed from the atmosphere today, we’re also poised to help bring future innovations to market,” Legrand said.

Legrand is one of five winners of the Mitacs Entrepreneur Award who are being recognized for their efforts to turn their research into an innovative business that impacts the lives of Canadians.

“Supporting innovation is essential to help Canada rebound from the repercussions of the global pandemic, and Mitacs is extremely proud of the remarkable accomplishments achieved by our network of talented entrepreneurs,” said Mitacs CEO and scientific director John Hepburn.

“We are thrilled that our continued investment in talent, research and development is translating into more and more Mitacs interns successfully turning their groundbreaking research into dynamic startups, helping to boost both Canada’s economy and our country’s position on the global innovation stage.”

Mitacs is funded by the Government of Canada and the Government of Quebec, along with the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Saskatchewan and the Government of Yukon.