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Better living through algae: Learn how Pond Biofuels is turning raw smokestack gas into a useful product

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Algae is a pretty important organism. The first plants on earth probably evolved from algae. It's used in food, fertilizer and sewage treatment. Oh, and algae can also eat raw industrial smokestack emissions for breakfast.

Steve Martin was so taken by the potential of algae he started a company to grow it. "I was at a job I didn't like and I happened to read an article in the Washington Post that said you could make oil from algae. I Looked at it and said I could probably do that. About 12 hours later I started the company with my partner Max Kolesnik."

That company is Pond Biofuels and we visited their pilot plant in the shadow of the St. Marys cement plant in St. Marys, Ontario. Pond is an early stage Canadian company that's taking raw smokestack gas from the cement plant next door and growing algae. They've just installed their own third generation 25,000 litre bioreactor that looks like something out of the original Star Trek -- a big black box with flashing red lights.

"We consider ourselves a carbon recycling technology. Something that allows us to reuse a byproduct from industry," says Martin the founder and chief scientist of Pond.

Pond Biofuels takes raw smoke stack emissions from the cement plant and feeds it to the algae. Not just any algae mind you, Martin collected the algae he grows from the ponds and puddles right beside the existing cement plant. The theory being that if the algae could survive in the shadow of the plant they wouldn't mind the more concentrated emissions in the bioreactor.

The algae thrive in light-filled, CO2 rich conditions and that's exactly what they get in the bioreactor. The St. Marys Cement Plant produces 720,000 tonnes of cement and 540,000 tonnes of CO2 each year. Right now Pond only uses a small portion of that total output.

The light comes from custom designed red LED lights that flash continuously in a pulsing, almost mesmerizing fashion. The colour of the light is just what the algae want and the rapid flashing fools the algae into thinking the days are very short -- so it grows very fast.

"It turns out that algae will evolve quite quickly. We can get four, five, six generations of algae in a day," says Martin.

And while it's related to pond scum when it comes out of the bioreactor it smells like freshly cut grass.

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Cement's CO2 Problem

Cement plants produce massive amounts of CO2. At St. Mary's there is a six to eight meter natural gas fired flame running at all times inside a massive rotating kiln that produces klinker, a component of cement. But that giant flame accounts for only 40 per cent of the cement plant's carbon footprint. The remaining 60 per cent of the CO2 emissions are liberated from the limestone in a process called calcination.

The cement industry produces 10 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent a year in Canada and that means they're very exposed to any future carbon pricing legislation. Partnering with Pond is one of several possible so-called "end-of-pipe" solutions to address their CO2 problem.

And it's not just the CO2 that's being captured. Many of the other pollution nasties that would normally go up the smokestack, NOX and SOX, get metabolized by the algae as well. Most pollution control technologies just cost money but Pond's algae helps control pollution and produces a potentially useful product as well.

Every kilogram of algae that Pond produces prevents two kilograms of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere. Martin has visions of algal farms connected to these industrial facilities turning their smokestacks into profit centres, all using Pond Biofuels licensed technology.

"I think that industry is looking for realistic improvements in their carbon footprint. The technology could ultimately scale to take 100 per cent of the emissions, but if you could deliver a five to 10 per cent reduction in what the facility is putting out I think you'd have a lot of happy people both in the community and in industry," says Steve Martin.

Proving the production of algae at commercial scale is important but the other important part is finding a market for the algae.

"Between 10 to 20 per cent of it is oil that be used for producing biodiesel," says Steve Martin. It could also be used a coal replacement, a soil amendment or even animal feed and it can be easily dried using waste heat from the cement plant.

There's still a lot of work to do. Markets and products need to be developed for the algae. The process needs to be scaled up an incredible amount in order to make a dent in the emissions of cement plants. But as we have seen here at Green Energy Futures whether it's cow poop, wood waste or waste heat or smoke stack emissions a more sustainable world and a profit can be found by finding the value in what most people consider waste. 

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