November 26, 2011

Scientists eye 'super slime' as possible greenhouse gas solution

Dr.Patrick McGinn, Research Officer NRC Institute for Marine Biosciences, looks over algae next to the Tubular Photobioreactor at their facility in Ketch Harbour,NS, November 17, 2011. Research is being conducted in using algae to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Dr.Patrick McGinn, Research Officer NRC Institute for Marine Biosciences, looks over algae next to the Tubular Photobioreactor at their facility in Ketch Harbour,NS, November 17, 2011. Research is being conducted in using algae to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Photograph by: Paul Darrow, Postmedia News

KETCH HARBOUR, N.S. — At a federal lab here on the windy shores of Nova Scotia, the hunt is on for super slime.

Algae plucked from creeks and ponds as far away as Alberta's oil patch and southern Ontario's industrial corridor are turning flasks of water bright green as scientists search for promising candidates.

The faster the organisms suck up carbon dioxide, the better, as John McDougall, president of the National Research Council, envisions big things for the lowly microbes.

McDougall is a long-time and unabashed promoter of using algae to reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions and has lobbied for years to get government to invest in a pilot project.

Now, McDougall, who was appointed president of the National Research Council in 2010, is focusing some of the council's considerable resources on making the algae grow-op a reality.

Carbon-catching algae have been chosen as one of four "flagship" projects at the council, which has of budget of almost $1 billion and 4,000 staff across Canada.

"The idea behind a flagship," said McDougall, "is to do something really important that would be substantial in scale and make a real difference to Canada if you could pull it off."

Redirecting carbon dioxide away from smokestacks is clearly important, he said, and "something that Canada is going to have to get its mind around."

And algae, he said, have the potential to take a sizeable bite out of this country's emissions and gobble up millions of tonnes of emissions a year.

"If it works, you're looking perhaps at as much as 15 to 20 per cent of carbon dioxide could be dealt with," said McDougall. He also sees international opportunities, noting Canadian algae-growing technology and know-how could be exported.

McDougall said there are challenges with mass-producing "super slime," as the fast-growing algae are described in one NRC report.

But the benefits are potentially "so enormous that it is worth spending a little money to find out," McDougall said in a recent interview, suggesting it could take $50 to $100 million to find out if using algae is a viable way to capture carbon.

McDougall said there could be all kinds of possible applications.

Carbon-hungry algae systems could be bolted on the "the back end" of existing power stations, oil sand operations, smelters, fertilizer and cement plants across Canada. "Anything that has a big smokestack," he said.

The idea, he said, is to get algae to suck up carbon dioxide, and generate oils, proteins and compounds that could be used for everything from biofuels to animal feed to cosmetics.

David Layzell, executive director of the Energy and Environmental Systems Group at the University of Calgary, doesn't buy it.

"I would argue that Canada wasn't dealt the cards you need to win in the bio-algae game," said Layzell. He said Canada's climate and cold, dark winters are not conducive to growing algae on a massive scale.

Nor does Layzell see algae making much of a dent in Canada's CO2 emissions, which are sure to attract negative attention at the UN-led climate talks that start in South Africa on Nov 28.

"If you are really interested in climate change," said Layzell, "I can give you much better things to do with the money."

Canada's carbon dioxide emissions are widely seen as a problem — and an international embarrassment — but McDougall said he prefers to see them as an opportunity.

"CO2 is the biggest unused natural resource in Canada," he said, referring to the 690 million tonnes Canada pumps into the atmosphere each year. The emissions make Canadians among the highest per capita CO2 emitters on the planet.

McDougall said the "epiphany " came several years ago when he said: "Hey, you know, what we've got is a big resource, we're producing it, it is coming out of the pipe every day, why don't we do something with it?"

McDougall championed using algae to capture CO2 when he was head of the Alberta Research Council and also as chair of Innoventures Canada, or I-CAN, a non-for profit consortium of technical organizations that work to commercialize research.

He even drank the green stuff as part of one I-CAN event t o promote using algae to "fast-track Mother Nature's own greenhouse gas recycling process" and make "value-added products."

McDougall is still a director of I-Can, and unnamed bloggers said he may be in a conflict of interest by promoting one of the group's pet projects now that he is president of NRC, the country's top science shop.

McDougall disagrees. I-CAN is non-profit, public interest organization "just trying to figure out how to work together for the benefit of the country," he said. "So there is no sort of personal benefit, or really even organizational benefit."

McDougall also noted NRC scientists suggested using algae to capture CO2 when asked for possible flagship projects.

The idea struck a receptive chord and McDougall and council officials chose CO2-ingesting algae as one of four NRC flagships this spring, along with high-output wheat, printable electronics and composite materials from biomass.

NRC researcher Patrick McGinn opened a fridge in the council's Institute for Marine Biosciences in Ketch Harbour where the "seed stock" for the algae flagship is being nurtured.

The test tubes, flasks and petri dishes contain algae that have been plucked from water samples from across the country, many of them from Ontario and Alberta, where they may eventually be put back to work.

McGinn, an algae specialist, said it might be more fitting to call the strains weeds, rather than super slime.

"Robust, hardy weeds," he said, explaining the algae will need to be tough enough to survive in industries sending huge volumes of CO2 up their smokestacks.

"We don't want strains that are killed by flue gas, we want ones that thrive under it," he said.

Algae are simple organisms that occur in an incredible variety of shapes and sizes in nature.

McGinn, who has been studying algae for years, says some strains take up carbon dioxide four to five times better than of their neighbours. The most promising ones can be coaxed to make so much oil that it accounts for 30 to 40 per cent of their weight and they begin to resemble little sacs of oil.

The team now has about 100 strains in their collection and is aiming to add another 100.

The algae are being put to the test in bioreactors, known as "brite boxes," and an elaborate system of illuminated, and very green, tubes on the main floor of the Ketch Harbour facility.

The algae are fed a diet of "simulated" smokestack gas and waste water that is trucked to the seaside lab from the community of Bedford, about 35 kilometres away.

Algae are the stuff of pond scum, but the organisms grown here tend to end up as dark green powder.

NRC researcher Patrick McGinn pulled out a bucket full of one of the research team's "favorite strains" that's been harvested and dried.

The algae transformed the CO2 and wastewater into "basically an energy source," said McGinn. Oil extracted from the algae can be turned into biofuel, possibly even jet fuel, while leftover proteins and carbohydrates can be used such as feed, fertilizer and additives.

The algae show their potential here in Ketch Harbour. But the lab that is at the heart of NRC flagship grows just 15 to 20 kilograms of algae a month, McGinn said.

That is plenty for the experiments the NRC is running with industrial and academic partners across the country, but negligible compared to the millions of tonnes of algae it would take to reduce Canada's CO2 emissions.

McDougall said he is satisfied the concept of using algae is scientifically sound. Now, he said, it "warrants a good hard look" to see if algal systems can soak up CO2 in the real world "hour after hour, day after day, week after week," on a sustained and economical basis.

Details have not been announced, but he said he expects to see "$20 to $30 million" invested in a demonstration project that would get Canada into the international bio-algae race.

Algae have some distinct advantages over biofuel crops such as corn and canola. They don't require farmland and convert sunlight to oil much faster than plants, which spend a lot of time and energy growing leaves and roots.

But algae also have some disadvantages, said Layzell, noting how algae need far more nitrogen and other nutrients than plants or trees. "And nitrogen fertilizer is very expensive," he said, and generates large amounts of CO2 when it is made.

McGinn said one way around the problem is to grow algae in municipal wastewater. It contains nitrogen and phosphorus than can be harmful when released into the environment, but act like fertilizer boosting algal growth. McGinn said CO2 to feed the algae could be pumped in from near-by industrial sources.

While far more upbeat about algae biofuels than Layzell, McGinn said the challenges of mass-producing algae using CO2 heading up smokestacks are "quite daunting."

For starters, algae can only take up CO2 so fast.

"Even the best strains have their limits, you can't force feed them," he said, noting that too much CO2 acidifies water and can be toxic to the organisms.

To avoid this problem, he said one of NRC's industrial partners is devising a technique for controlling how much CO2 is fed into algal growth systems.

Cold dark icy winters are another problem.

McGinn said it might be possible to grow algae year-round using covered or insulated ponds, or bioreactors, that could be kept warm with waste heat from industry.

There is also talk of optimizing sunlight by using mirrors to concentrate and direct the light onto algal cultures during the dark winter months.

The Canadian climate is, however, not all bad.

McGinn and McDougall said many algae tend to prefer Canadian summers to the extreme heat seen in hotter parts of the world. "It's too hot for them, just like it's too hot for us," said McDougall. "So they take siestas."

Even so, Layzell said the southern U.S., Mexico and tropical parts of the world are more hospitable to the burgeoning algae biofuel industry.

"The question is: Is this an area where we can compete," said Layzell, who specializes in assessing energy systems. He said he would argue "no" because the infrastructure and operating costs of growing bio-algae in Canada will put the country at a "competitive disadvantage" compared to warmer places.

"We don't have the climate," he said. Canadian algae systems would have to either shut down or be housed inside in the winter, he said. And the organisms might need to be fed sugars to make it through long winter nights. On top of that, he said, nutrients would have to be recycled to keep fertilizer costs down, and steps would have to be taken to keep harmful bacteria and unwanted strains of algae out of the growth chambers.

There is also debate about how good algae biofuel would be for the environment, he said, pointing to studies that suggest algae biofuel might be no more beneficial than driving around on regular gasoline.

Layzell said Canadians need to start thinking more strategically of how best to use the country's vast land mass and biological resources to generate new forms of clean energy. He said a more promising prospect than algae might be to breed fast-growing trees, and devise the technology to turn the wood into liquid fuel or, better yet, convert it into electricity.

"What we need is something that will grow under really nasty environmental conditions, when the country's frozen for five months of the year," said Layzell.

Original post available here.

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