Algae and the oil sands: solution to an eco-disaster?

Most algae-to-biofuel ventures or projects I’ve seen in the past have been focused on areas in the U.S. south where the warmer climate is favourable to algae growth. Canada, from what I’ve been told, isn’t an ideal place to conduct such projects.

Turns out that’s more assumption than fact, at least according to the Alberta Research Council and a research consortium looking into CO2-to-algae-to-biofuel processes as a way of cleaning up the oil sands. “Most people felt you can’t grow algae to any great extent in higher latitudes, but in fact we’ve demonstrated it’s tangibly not true,” says John McDougall, CEO of the Alberta Research Council. “There’s a million plus species of algae that grow in Canada today, and if you choose the right ones you can grow them very well here.”

McDougall says they’ve also learned that growing algae in higher latitudes has some advantages. “We’ve learned that in very intense sunlight environments that algae actually turn off their functions and take a rest. In northern climates people don’t take siestas, and neither do algae.”

Still, we’ve got Canadian winters to deal with. McDougall says the consortium has ruled out the use of bioreactors to grow algae, simply because of the volume needed for a typical fossil fuel plant or oil sands operation. At the same time, the open pond route doesn’t work so well in colder weather. So they’ve determined that a covered pond system will work best, with the idea being that the heat already in flu gas will be enough to keep the pond warm. Their base test case is a pond where the algae consumes up to 30 per cent of the CO2 emitted from the smokestack of a 300-megawatt coal plant. “We’ve just come through a feasibility study that’s given us some design parameters,” says McDougall. “The next two years we get to the point where we’re dealing with practical issues.” He expects a commercial-scale project is about three to five years away, and so far there are no insurmountable barriers to reaching that goal.

As far as the oil sands are concerned, he envisions algae ponds that do more than just capture CO2. The plan is to grow the algae on toxic tailing ponds that have attracted much scrutiny in the oil sands. The algae doesn’t just consume CO2, they also love some heavy metals, nitrogen and residual hydrocarbons. If the approach could be made to work — including the required management of algae growth, handling and harvesting — the algae could be used to produce biofuels and a number of other products as they suck up CO2 and clean up other chemicals. “Industry is incredibly interested in this, because they can see it has a potential to take a cost burden out of the equation and turn it into a revenue-generating device, which is huge,” says McDougall, adding that he sees a new industry spawning from this research. “I’m really quite excited about this. There aren’t that many things that have the right buttons on them, but this one seems to have them.”

Carbon capture and geological sequestration. Char production and biosequestration. Turning CO2 into baking soda and other usable materials. Growing CO2-sucking algae to make biofuels and clean up toxic pools. Certainly we’ve got options — and we’re going to need them all.