April 28, 2008

Algae looked at as new energy source

Algae - the icky stuff that chokes out aquatic life and makes swimmers squeamish - is fuelling research for more renewable energy sources.

"By sequestering carbon dioxide into water it can feed algae, which can then be transformed into biodiesel, ethanol and fertilizer," said John Vidmar of the Alberta Research Council.

Vidmar is heading up some of the local research being done by scientists across Canada by a network of non-profits similar to the ARC.

Dubbed Innoventures Canada, the group is exploring how industry can use captured carbon emissions as food to grow bio-based products.

Research is in the early stages, but Vidmar said the idea is fairly straightforward. Build covered water ponds near industry, pump filtered CO2 emissions into them, funnel as much sunlight into the depths as possible and wait for the pond to get scummy.

"Gas sequestered from industrial complexes like coal-fired power plants would feed the algae, which is then harvested and processed," Vidmar said.

"This could be an alternative way to create renewable sources of energy ... if it were commercially viable."

Algae contains the ingredients to make bioproducts that will be in greater demand as the supply of non-renewable energy sources is depleted.

"Photosynthesis can produce a number of different carbon backbones from the algae, like lipids, sugars and amino acids. From those we could produce biodiesel, other ethanol products and fertilizer," Vidmar said.

He said similar research was done in the 1980s in Utah and Nevada, but the scum ponds were left open to the elements and were not actively fed with sequestered CO2. "They had problems with evaporation, that's why we'd cover them. We'd have some significant challenges doing this in the Canadian climate, which is something our research group will try to address as we move on."

Vidmar said various corporate partners are helping fund the research, including EPCOR, Shell and Petro-Canada.

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