05/10/2013 01:24 EDT | Updated 07/10/2013 05:12 EDT

NRC teams up on CO2-eating algae farm

Hard on the heels of announcing a new commercial focus for the National Research Council, the federal government today provided an example of what this new mission could mean for Canada's premier science agency.

Oilsands giant Canadian Natural Resources has partnered with the NRC and Pond Biofuels to build an algae farm that uses carbon dioxide emitted from one of the energy company's plants in Cold Lake, Alta.

"This is an opportunity for Canadian industries such as the oilsands not just to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide but to recycle their emissions and use them as a nutrient to grow algae, I'm not kidding, and then turn that algae into value-added products," Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear said at an event in Calgary to announce the joint venture.

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The project will cost $19 million over three years. Half the money came from the NRC, Canadian Natural Resources ponied up two-thirds of the other half and Pond threw in the rest.

The algae farm represents a significant step for all three organizations. The NRC applies its vast knowledge of algae strains to a for-profit venture. Canadian Natural Resources invests in a possible solution to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. And Pond Biofuels uses its photobioreactor technology — algae-growing lights — on a scale almost ready for the commercial market.

"With the three legs of the stool, people are really beginning to listen to what we are doing," Pond Biofuels CEO and chief scientist Steve Martin told the CBC.

Martin was in the news in December when his company expanded their first algae pilot project at St. Marys Cement in St. Marys, Ont., and set up a second one at US Steel in Nanticoke, Ont. The idea behind that project and the one just announced is to capture CO2 emissions before they make it into the atmosphere. They are redirected to light-filled tanks that grow CO2-gorging algae. The algae is then harvested and turned into biofuel.

Pond Biofuels' real specialty is the lights used to grow the algae. They are high-efficiency LEDs that reduce the price of electricity needed to make the operation profitable.

The NRC's role is that of algae librarian. Its marine research station in Ketch Harbour, N.S., specializes in algal biology. Twelve scientists isolate and grow Canadian strains of the green, slimy organism that can grow on CO2 and other smokestack emissions. The ultimate goal is to pass them on to industry so it can reduce its carbon footprint.

"It's very exciting for a humble micro-algal biologist to see this kind of application of micro-algae go forward at this scale," said Patrick McGinn, lead scientist at Ketch Harbour's Algal-Carbon Conversion Project.

For Canadian Natural Resources, the algae pond solves a big part of their CO2 emissions problem while at the same time potentially helping them turn additional profit.

"It's just a very elegant way of using things that would otherwise be waste and turns it into valuable products. So that's really what makes the economics go round," Canadian Natural Resources vice-president of technology development Joy Romero explained to the CBC.