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Report On Business:Turning pond scum into profit

Photosynthetic process using algae to absorb CO2 could save billions of dollars a year

SHAWN MCCARTHY
GLOBAL ENERGY REPORTER
October 1, 2007 at 7:49 AM EDT

CALGARY — Backed by major energy companies, the Alberta Research Council is turning to algae to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in a process that could even turn pond scum into a profit centre.

In essence, the Alberta researchers are hoping to mimic the photosynthetic process that occurred early in the Earth’s life, when blue-green algae absorbed massive amounts of carbon dioxide from a CO{-2}-rich atmosphere and released oxygen.

If successful, the technology could eventually save oil companies and coal-firing utilities billions of dollars a year as they face growing pressure to reduce emissions associated with global warming.

“At the end of the day, the idea is to take what people are trying to get rid of today and treat it as a new resource, and see if we can’t use it as an input to create something valuable,” John McDougall, president of the Alberta Research Council, said in an interview.

“If you can do that, then you’ve really changed the game.”

With the right mix of enzymes and genetic engineering, the algae could be mined to produce biodiesel, hydrogen, methane and nutraceuticals, he said.

The Alberta research is just one example of the global quest to harness nature’s photosynthesis to reduce the growing intensity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Some companies are proposing to “fertilize” large areas in the oceans to encourage the growth of phytoplankton that absorb carbon dioxide, though scientists worry about unforeseen consequences.

In Alberta, the researchers are looking at using cooling ponds or tailing ponds for the algae growth. But huge hurdles remain before it can be commercialized.

The long Canadian winters mean the algae would only be active in the cooling ponds and tailing ponds for about eight months. At the same time, researchers have to genetically transform enzymes to enhance the process of photosynthesis and extend the depth of the algae bloom so that the “footprint” of the facility can be kept to a manageable scale.

As of yet, no energy company is factoring it into even their medium-term plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“It really looks like it’s got some promise,” said David Lewin, senior vice-president for Edmonton-based EPCOR Utilities Inc., which is co-sponsoring the project along with Royal Dutch Shell PLC and others.

“Over the next 15 years or so, as these things mature, who knows where it could take us. … Unless you do this kind of work, you never really know.”

Currently, researchers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec are collaborating to examine the feasibility of constructing a small pilot project. That initial plant would be about a tenth of the size of a commercial-scale facility that would be built alongside a coal-fired power plant, or oil sands upgrader to capture as much as five million tonnes of CO{-2} a year.

Mr. McDougall said he remains optimistic that a fleet of bioconversion facilities across the Prairies could eventually eliminate as much as 100 million tonnes a year, which represents more than a third of Alberta’s current emissions of greenhouse gases.

“The reason I’m excited about it is that it is the closest thing we’ve seen to date with the potential to mimic nature,” he said in an interview. “There’re no slam dunks but if it can be made feasible on a large scale, then we’ve changed the whole paradigm” for dealing with such emissions.

Alberta currently produces about 35 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, as a result of its heavy reliance on coal-fired electricity and extraction and refining of crude oil. The oil sands alone would generate about 200 million tonnes of CO{-2} a year if production reached the projected five million barrels a day by 2025.

In Western Canada and around the world, energy companies are looking to carbon capture and storage technology in the hopes that it will allow them to deal with emissions while continuing to rely on coal and oil as fuel.

In Alberta, federal and provincial governments along with the private sector – including EPCOR – are investigating the economics and engineering hurdles to the so-called carbon sequestration. In some cases, the captured CO{-2} could be piped to mature oil fields and injected underground to enhance recovery, providing a revenue to offset the cost. In other cases, the CO{-2} would simply be sequestered in deep formations.

Mr. McDougall – whose institute is also researching carbon capture and storage – said the two technologies are complementary, particularly where there is the opportunity for enhanced oil recovery creating value for the CO{-2}.

The advantage of the bioconversion approach, he said, is that the CO{-2} does not have to be separated from other gases, as it does in capture and storage techniques, that the gas does not have to be piped long distances, and that the algae will have some commercial value.

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