May 13, 2008

Canadians tap algae to clean Alberta oil sands

Canadian researchers hope algae offers them "la grande solution" to greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental havoc caused by oil extraction in the Alberta tar sands.

The project is called CARS, Carbon Algae Recycling System, and it's backed by a consortium of researchers.

Canadians researchers believe they can grow microalgae to take CO2 out of the atmosphere, clean toxins, and make valuable products. Click on the image to see a video explanation.

(Credit: Alberta Research Council)

The idea is to grow algae next to a source of carbon dioxide, like a power plant. A number of algae start-ups plan to or are already doing exactly that to "feed" their algae the CO2 they need to grow.

Algae can be used for toxic cleanup as well, researchers tell clean-tech reporter Tyler Hamilton.

The plan is to grow the algae on toxic tailing ponds that have attracted much scrutiny in the oil sands. The algae doesn't just consume CO2, they also love some heavy metals, nitrogen, and residual hydrocarbons. If the approach could be made to work--including the required management of algae growth, handling, and harvesting--the algae could be used to produce biofuels and a number of other products as they suck up CO2 and clean up other chemicals.

"Industry is incredibly interested in this, because they can see it has a potential to take a cost burden out of the equation and turn it into a revenue-generating device, which is huge," says John McDougall, CEO of the Alberta Research Council, adding that he sees a new industry spawning from this research. "I'm really quite excited about this. There aren't that many things that have the right buttons on them, but this one seems to have them."

Bioremediation may become something big in the agricultural business. I profiled a company called Bionvitas, which expects that the near-term business opportunity for its algae bioreactors will be for cleaning up toxics in water. Later it intends to make biodiesel.

While algae does have a lot of promise as a valuable fuel crop, it still remains experimental.

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