Chinook Sciences – Applying Science
Chinook Sciences is an engine for innovation and creativity, but their research is far from pure blue sky development.
Chinook Sciences is a technology development company that invents and deploys its own technology, specifically in environmental applications.
“The key thing is that we only deploy our technology where we have an overwhelming technological advantage,” says Dr Rifat Chalabi, CEO of Chinook Sciences. “That’s the only time we go ahead commercially in the market.”
Dr Rifat Chalabi has cared about the environment since early in his career, originally going into nuclear engineering as a way to reduce CO2 emissions while providing energy in abundance. Later, he and two of his colleagues began thinking about how to recover energy from discarded waste.
Another Man’s Treasure
“We realised we should do better than that and recover value from the waste,” Chalabi says.
One person’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the saying goes. Waste contains value in the form of metal and hydrocarbon molecules, so Chalabi and his colleagues started with the obvious by pulling the metal out of the waste and using the energy they also withdrew to power that process.
“Then we thought there’s so much energy coming out, let’s try to make power out of it,” Chalabi says. “We decided rather than burning, we would do molecular recycling. Starting with a complex hydrocarbon molecule like plastic, waste paper, or even wood, once you discard it the energy value is still there. We went into molecular recycling, recovering the component and not burning it but obtaining value from it while also generating clean hydrogen. But the commercial market wasn’t there yet.”
Chalabi is sanguine about the lack of a commercial market. A key part of Chinook Sciences’ work is that the company will not pursue research unless it can find a way to make that research pay.
“Many times your aspiration is not supported by the world’s commercial needs. We couldn’t get funding or support,” he says. “In everything we do we look for applied science. The science we generate has to have an impact on the market and should be commercially viable. If it is not, you will not be able to deploy it. We’re not in this for the sake of writing technical papers, we want to make an environmental impact.”
That did not mean that Chinook Sciences could not salvage. The waste the company was processing was solid, and once it is processed thermally, some of those carbon molecules will become gas and some will stay behind and form solids. Chinook Sciences’ approach was to conduct intense research and development into how to maximise the value from the solid by-product.
Chinook Sciences looked at the possibility of creating value from the gas by-product, but again, there was no commercial product to be had, so that research was filed away while the company continued to process solid waste. The technology company took hydrocarbon solid materials, like waste wood, coconut shells or macadamia nuts and found a way to turn them into a product used in every house- activated carbon.
In that activated carbon, they struck gold.
“Activated carbon is a great filter for gases, it takes out pollutants, filters the water, it is used in almost every city and it’s a very big market,” Chalabi says. “When we went into this market with our technology it quickly gave us a significant advantage and we took it a step further and said a lot of the altered carbon being used is coal-based. Let’s use biomass instead. It was not a complete substitution but by gradual displacement processes we were able to market this product.”
For Chalabi, this process, iteration, development, discarding solutions that the market will not adopt, is the key to Chinook Sciences’ approach.
“This is the kind of thing we do,” he tells us proudly. “We take an issue or problem and work on it within our Research and Development facility until we find a solution for it and apply it. Then we know we have a product. But unless we have an overwhelming technological advantage, we do not get into it. That’s why we have a very large IP portfolio across different applications.”
However, while this product was a success, a shift in the market was about to make Chinook Sciences reassess an old idea.
Returning to Hydrogen
In the last couple of years, hydrogen has become much more prominent. Governments, agencies, and institutions have been growing in awareness as to the benefits of hydrogen as an energy source.
“The work we did five or six years ago now has a commercial market for it, so we dusted it off and brought it back,” Chalabi explains. “But when we tried to put it into a commercial application, we realised over that last five or six years we had been generating even higher value from the solid by-products, and we could merge these two approaches. We started working carefully on it, filed our patents and came up with a unique concept.”
That concept was a complementary solution that would distribute smaller-scale hydrogen plants where there was a demand for them. Each of these plants produces between two and ten tons of hydrogen per day.
“A hydrogen bus will require 20kg a day. So that’s 100 buses a day you could support,” Chalabi points out.
The commercial application Chinook Sciences is always looking for is clear here.
“It’s good for a transportation hub. If you think of buses today, they all have hubs for maintenance and parking at night,” Chalabi explains. “So, our solution is to offer compact plants that take the waste we have, biomass, compressed plastic, and put it through a compact plant next to the demand, supplying hydrogen directly to these trucks and buses.”
It answers one of the fundamental challenges of introducing hydrogen. There is no point in rolling out hydrogen infrastructure without the demand for it. There can be no demand for hydrogen unless the infrastructure is there to support it.
“It’s a chicken and egg situation,” Chalabi says.
At the same time, demand for activated carbon is also rising.
“Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, or PFAS, has become a big challenge. It causes neurological problems with human beings and animals and exists in every water source,” Chalabi says. “You have it in your body now. They call it the forever carbon molecule. Activated carbon has proven itself to be an excellent filter. We produce it in the UK and sell it all the way to the US to filter out these elements. The beauty of our solution is to go gradually from coal to wood and merge the two together. This market has been growing for five years in double digits as people recognise the pollution in the water and the air.”
Even here, Chinook Sciences is pushing the envelope, recognising the potential practical applications.
“We took it a step further in 2020. What can we do with our activated carbon? It is a very fine mesh filter; can it trap pathogens? Can it trap viruses? Can it kill them too?” Chalabi asks. “We have two very timely materials, green hydrogen and activated carbon, that can capture pathogens. We can deploy them hand-in-hand as an environmentally responsible plant that can do both together.”
For Chalabi, this all comes back to the bedrock of Chinook Sciences’ philosophy.
“It’s in our DNA to take everything and use a scientific approach to analyse it, understand it and deploy it,” Chalabi says. “At the same time, one thing we understood very well was the importance of commercially viable applications- not just for profit, for the impact they make. It won’t be deployed if people don’t want to use it.”