Algae to energy

An innovative northern Alberta pilot project will convert oilsands CO2 into fuel and other products

Algae’s ability to remove large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere has long been known, but the challenge for science and industry has been finding a way to harness that power to tackle climate change. Now a Toronto company believes it may have unlocked the secret.

Pond Biofuels Inc. has developed a way to deploy algae to absorb the CO2 from industrial smokestack emissions and then turn it into useful products. With the support of partners at the National Research Council of Canada and oil and gas producer Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL), the company recently announced a $19-million pilot at CNRL’s Primrose oilsands plant near Bonnyville, Alta. The three-year project will focus on converting CO2 emissions to fuel, fertilizer and livestock feed.

The technology has already received rave reviews from St. Marys Cement Group, a Toronto company that built a pilot project with Pond at its cement plant in St. Marys, Ont. It now plans to move on to commercial development.

“Their technology is a game changer,” says Martin Vroegh, corporate environmental manager at St. Marys Cement. He says the process has been working “brilliantly” in the pilot, which has impressed the company enough for it to become a partner in Pond.

Not only is the algae trapping all of the CO2 from about one per cent of the southwestern Ontario plant’s 500,000 tonnes of annual CO2 emissions, but “we are scrubbing most of the NOx [nitrogen oxides], SO2 [sulphur dioxide] and particulates,” Vroegh says. The system works by redirecting a percentage of the hot gases from the plant’s flare stack to Pond’s facility, where algae from the nearby Thames River absorb CO2 and release oxygen through photosynthesis.

Commercial status is on the schedule for 2014, with a plant that can absorb 100,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. The pair plans to eventually build a similar facility at the cement company’s giant plant in Bowmanville, Ont., which emits 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 annually.

Vroegh says there is no question the technology works, “but we need to be producing value-added products that make it sustainable.”

The biofuel produced using the technology sells for about $100 per tonne, which makes it a low-cost product, he explains. A commercial plant could produce 250 million litres of biodiesel annually, but fertilizer and other by-products would add additional value.

Beyond such benefits, there is also the important matter of social licence. The cement business is one of the world’s largest industrial CO2 emitters, while the St. Marys plant produces almost one tonne of CO2 for every tonne of cement. That’s why Vroegh believes Pond’s approach is so important to his industry.

“It captures 100 per cent of what we feed it,” he says.

Along with the social licence, the company is preparing for climate taxes that will inevitably be imposed on large emitters around the country at some point, Vroegh says. St. Marys sells cement at $200 per tonne, meaning even a $15-per-tonne carbon price—such as that paid by large emitters in Alberta—would add significantly to its costs.

Spreading quickly

Alberta’s oilsands producers, in particular, face a particularly tough challenge in earning a social licence. The industry has faced a constant barrage of criticism over its environmental record, including CO2 emissions. Even Vroegh, while noting the importance of Pond’s deal with CNRL, says, “Canada has the dirtiest oil on the planet.”

Pond chief executive officer and chief scientist Steve Martin, who invented the technology along with partner Max Kolesnik, says the CNRL pilot will likely be the first of many in the oilsands.

“There will be other announcements [of pilot projects at oilsands facilities],” he says. “I would see it propagating quickly.”

Certainly, everyone in the industry will be paying close attention to the technology, which CNRL believes could lower CO2 emissions by 15 per cent from its integrated Horizon oilsands mining project and by 30 per cent at Primrose, for a total reduction of 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions. For each tonne of algae, the company expects to produce 0.3 tonnes of biofuel, 0.7 tonnes of biomass products like fertilizer and livestock feed. That same tonne of algae will also remove 1.8 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing 1.3 tonnes of oxygen.

Whatever the final results, his company will spread the information throughout the industry via the Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance. CNRL is a member of the group, which brings together most of the oilsands producing community to share knowledge and accelerate environmental technologies.

Algae factory

There are still barriers before algae spreads across the oilsands. For instance, algae does not live on CO2 alone. It needs sunlight to grow, which can be in short supply in northern climates like Canada’s.

That’s where Martin’s background as an optical engineer enters the picture.

Previously employed by tech giants IBM, Intel Corporation and the former Nortel Networks Corporation, he was one of the early developers of laser optical technology. He also has advanced degrees in chemistry and physics, and served as director of the University of Toronto’s Jeffrey Skoll BASc/MBA program, which offers an accelerated engineering and MBA degree to students.

Because algae and its potential had been the domain of bioscience, Martin says he had never really considered its potential for helping to solve the world’s climate change problem. But after reading an article in the Washington Post about algae and its CO2-trapping potential, he became convinced the solution lay in laser optics creating artificial light that would promote the growth of algae.

Using high-efficiency LED lights, the company tries to keep electricity costs low while spurring photosynthesis. At the CNRL project, waste heat and water from the plant will also be used to promote algae growth.

“We know we can grow algae from a smokestack using a bioreactor,” Martin says. “The next question is whether it can be commercialized, and that is what we plan to prove at the CNRL site.”

He would have preferred moving ahead with a commercial project with St. Marys sooner rather than later, but progress has been constrained because “smokestacks are highly regulated,” he says, adding that regulators don’t understand the power of algae.

“If you have a working algae factory, you don’t need a smokestack,” he says.

Old as the dinosaurs

While producing fuel from algae might seem like a novel concept, it is actually an old idea—prehistoric, even. Using the technology to produce biofuel strikes at a basic misunderstanding of how fossil fuels evolved, Martin says.

“The belief has been that oil is derived from dinosaur bones, but that’s more or less insane,” he says. “How did the dinosaurs all end up in the same place?”

Instead, it is the product of algae, from which a variety of oils can be derived.

Algae sounds like a natural fit for the oil industry, but Martin believes it was important to begin at a cement plant first. Beyond being a vital part of any industrial economy, cement is a major source of CO2 emissions, with about five per cent of the world’s total emissions produced by the industry. It lies at the base of almost every industry that produces significant greenhouse gas emissions, including construction, transportation and yes, oil and gas.

Even renewable-energy projects need it. For instance, an average wind turbine is supported with tonnes of cement, which in turn are responsible for tonnes of emissions.

Having proven the technology in the cement industry, the company believes the oilsands offers the next major step in the technology’s development, and the government seems to agree. The CNRL project is supported by $9.5 million in funding from the National Research Council, in addition to $6.3 million from CNRL and $3.2 million from Pond.

“The [oilsands] industry is saying [managing CO2 emissions] is about their right to operate,” Martin says. “The cheapest thing you can do is to pollute. But when pollution is no longer allowed, there’s not much a producer can do.”

The impact goes far beyond the oilsands and cement industries, however. There are 3,000 industrial facilities in North America alone that produce at least 100,000 tonnes of CO2 per year and are responsible for about 30 per cent of overall emissions.

“The technology [applied at all of those facilities] has the potential to bring industrial emissions down to the levels of the 1940s,” he says.

Canada has the potential to be a “world leader” in implementing the technology to clean up the environment, Martin says. Not only that, but it has a chance to forge a new sector—the algae energy industry.

AT A GLANCE

Project: Algal carbon conversion project

Location: Primrose oilsands operations near Bonnyville, Alta.

Funding: $9.5 million (the National Research Council of Canada), $6.3 million (Canadian Natural Resources Limited) and $3.2 million (Pond Biofuels Inc.)

Goal: To use algae to convert CO2 emissions into useful products, such as biofuels, livestock feed and fertilizer

Potential emissions reduction: 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent


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