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Technical Profile: Micro-algae consumes power plant emissions


November 1, 2015  


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The once-annoying green slime that grows in our lakes each summer called microalgae could hold the key to helping coalfired power plants and industrial facilities such as oilsands mining operations clean up their acts, while producing a valuable commodity in the process. New research has discovered a strain of naturally occurring micro-algae that can scrub 100 per cent of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, from industrial facilities and power plants before they enter the atmosphere.

Micro-algae are photosynthetic, plant-like organisms that need light, water, carbon dioxide and nutrients — mainly nitrogen and phosphorus. They can feed on compounds such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and volatile organic compounds commonly emitted from facilities such as heavy oil production plants and coal-fired power plants. They release beneficial oxygen in the process and grow into a plant commodity with considerable commercial potential. There are many different strains of micro-algae, both good and bad. Some are toxic and result, for example, in massive fish die-offs.

Feng Chen, an associate professor in the Environmental Science department at the University of Maryland Centre, achieved a breakthrough in micro-algae science when he identified the HTB1 strain, which is particularly well-suited for use in greenhouse gas mitigation. It is a naturally occurring, North American strain, so its use wouldn't involve introducing a foreign strain into the local ecosystem. Maryland-based biotech company HY-TEK Bio is working with the University of Maryland to develop and market patented technology using micro-algae for mitigation of greenhouse gases. The company already has a working demonstration facility with four bio-reactors consuming flue gas emissions from a three-megawatt, biogas-fueled power plant attached to a Baltimore wastewater treatment plant. The city provided a $255,000 grant for the installation.

Micro-algae have commercial potential in the fight against global warming. Yet HY-TEK president and chief executive Bob Mroz says the real money is in the sale of the micro-algae plant material itself, as well as the high quality oxygen it generates through photosynthesis in the bio-reactor tanks where it is grown. That's because micro-algae contain valuable chemicals such as lipids that have existing commercial uses as a source of Omega 3 fatty acid oil, as well as an additive in cosmetics, nutraceuticals, paint and as an animal feed supplement. Mroz, who is also an electrical engineer and computer programmer, already has an overseas buyer for as much dry micro-algae material as the company can produce.

"The market is ridiculously large," says Mroz, just speaking about the demand from a variety of industries to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions, with 600 coal-fired power plants in the U.S. alone and 50,000 globally. However, he adds the reality is that, at present, there is little legislative requirement for industries to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions. So from a business perspective, while HY-TEK Bio is primarily focused on marketing the micro-algae's proven greenhouse gas mitigation potential, it also wants to harvest and market the high-value micro-algae plant material itself and the oxygen it produces. The challenge the company has faced since being founded in 2009 has been in finding an inexpensive source of nutrients to fertilize the micro-algae and accelerate its growth to perform as advertised in a greenhouse-gas-mitigation application.

Mroz says as the company has worked to develop its technology, it has encountered organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which expressed its concerns about poultry manure seeping into the region's water drainage system, resulting in considerable algae growth in areas such as the Chesapeake Bay. Because of this concern, and the availability of grants, HY-TEK Bio approached researchers at the University of Maryland to investigate poultry manure's potential as a cheap nutrient source for micro-algae. Through grants provided by HY-TEK Bio and the Maryland Industrial Partnership, University of Maryland scientists are now testing poultry manure as a natural fertilizer to feed micro-algae. The plan is to develop a pilot project that demonstrates a process that, in addition to showing how the micro-algae mitigates greenhouse gases, also demonstrates how the poultry manure-derived nutrients can be applied to maintain the growth and health of the micro-algae.

Micro-algae grows by leaps and bounds when fed with poultry manure as an organic fertilizer, says Mroz. "Chicken manure is high in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. It contains the main nutrients that algae need," he says. "When you Slime time Researchers discover micro-algae that consumes power plant emissions by Tony Kryzanowski HY-TEK Bio has developed patented mylar bio-reaction chambers where GHG busting micro algae grow with the addition of organic fertilizer like poultry manure. are talking about 500 to 1,000 of these bioreactor tanks to mitigate a power plant, the nutrient has to be really, really cheap."

About 400 of the company's tanks can fit on one acre, "but we can use multi-storey facilities to increase land usage." The University of Maryland research has devised a method to liquefy raw poultry manure and create an end product that is clear enough so it does not impede the growth of the microalgae. University of Maryland researchers say they are "quite encouraged" by the results so far in using poultry manure nutrients to encourage micro-algae growth.

Alberta, home of North America's largest heavy oil mining industrial complex, likes the potential of HY-TEK Bio's technology, HYTEK was recently awarded a $500,000 grant as part of the three-stage, $35-million international Grand Challenge: Innovative Carbon Uses competition offered by the province's Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC). The corporation collects a levy from large greenhouse gas emitters that, in turn, is used to fund promising technology aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

Mroz says HY-TEK will be applying for more funding during the second phase of the CCEMC Grand Challenge, which opens in September. Should the application prove successful and commercially attractive in Alberta, Moroz believes this could pay a significant environmental and economic dividend to local poultry and egg producers, as well as help to solve a growing global problem. Not only would producers of poultry manure have a new and better method for manure disposal, but it could also create a new potential income stream for them.

Mroz says that HY-TEK Bio is looking for commercial partners to help demonstrate its technology in Alberta, and are currently in talks with the City of Calgary about the possibility of installing their technology as part of their waste treatment system.

About the author: Tony Kryzanowski writes about forestry, alternative energy, and natural sciences for a variety of national and international publications, and is headquartered in St. Albert, Alta.