Pond Technologies Inc. has developed an algae bioreactor that transforms CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion into valuable biofuels and phytonutrients!
Pond Technologies Inc. CEO, Steve Martin, explains algae bioreactor at St. Mary's Cement Site, St. Mary's, Ontario (photo by Craig Applegath, 2016)
THE WORLD'S MOST SERIOUS CHALLENGE
Like most of you, over the past few years I have grown ever more worried and frustrated about our chances of being able to meet the increasingly serious challenges of climate change – both the need to reduce the green-house gases that are causing it, and the need to respond to the impacts of climate change. Probably the sharpest blow to my hope that our species might be able to mount an effective response came when I attended Dr. James Lovelock’s lecture in Toronto in 2009, hosted by Corporate Knights. Lovelock is one of the world’s most respected scientists. He put forward the Gaia Hypothesis, the concept that the biosphere functions as a self-regulating organism. In the question period after the lecture, Lovelock concluded that we had now passed the point of no return, that the biosphere could not recover, and that over the next 50 to 100 years climate change will produce cataclysmic impacts that will cause massive species die-offs, and see our species reduced to a few million people living around the Arctic and Antarctic circles. At the time of his lecture, Lovelock could foresee no means by which we could radically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and therefore the production of CO2 emissions.
“I can remember very clearly that by the end of our lunch that the hair on the back of my neck was standing up and my heart was racing. I thought, “Oh my God, we now have a real solution to the cause of climate change!”
NOW THERE IS A SOLUTION!
So you can imagine my surprise and excitement when a year ago I had the pleasure of having lunch with Steve Martin, CEO of Pond Technologies Inc., and heard from him that we can now actually solve our CO2 emissions problem from burning fossil fuel, and make a profit in the process. He told me that Pond’s new bioreactor technology uses green algae to metabolize these pollutants preventing them from being released into the atmosphere. The technology is simple but revolutionary. I can remember very clearly that by the end of our lunch that the hair on the back of my neck was standing up and my heart was racing. I thought, “Oh my God, we now have a real solution to the cause of climate change!” And a solution that actually creates a valuable end product, covers its capital costs, and makes a profit! Steve and his team at Pond Technologies had invented the Holy Grail: they had created a technology that would now allow us to burn fossil fuels to power all types of industries and then capture and profitably process all CO2 emissions as a valuable feedstock! Think about that for a moment. Until now, fossil fuels equaled CO2 emissions, and to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions everyone agreed it would be necessarly to end our use of fossil fuels. But Steve Martin was now showing me that this equation was no longer true. Using Pond’s technology we could now burn fossil fuels and then use the CO2 emissions as feedstocks to produce a highly valuable product: algae.
THE GLOBAL CONTEXT
Before I describe Pond’s paradigm-smashing technology, let’s quickly review the enormous challenges that we now face in dealing with reducing our fossil fuel generated CO2 emissions around the world:
- The world’s population is increasing and will continue to do so for the next 25 years. We will be adding between one and two billion additional people to the planet over that time. This will continue to increase the demand for energy.
- In addition to increasing population, industrialization means per capita consumption of energy is increasing – so energy use is rising even faster than population.
- As the cost per Kwh of renewable energies such as solar photo-voltaics and wind turbines falls, their use will be more and more competitive with fossil fuels. However, even with a competitive capital cost for the installation of renewable energy technology, the transition to renewable energies will probably take anywhere from 25 to 50 years to happen. As Vaclav Smil explains in his book Energy Transitions [http://www.vaclavsmil.com/energy-transitions-history-requirements-prospects/ ] transitions from one type of energy to another type of energy, such as from coal to oil at the turn of the twentieth century, takes decades to happen because of the huge investments in existing energy infrastructure that must be changed. Meanwhile, the net demand for and use of fossil fuels continues to grow.
- Although many countries around the world have signed onto the UN’s Paris Climate Treaty, with the exception of a very few countries like Denmark and Germany, most of these countries have no real and implementable plans for how they will actually meet the treaty CO2 reduction targets, and it is very likely they will not be able to reduce their net CO2 emissions in the foreseeable future in any meaningful way.
If you are a realist, it is clear that although zero-carbon renewable energies are rapidly becoming a viable technology, the transition time to move from fossil fuel energy dependence to renewable energy will take much too long for us to meet the real challenge of CO2 emissions here and now. This is why Pond Technologies’ system for removing CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels is so important. It means that we no longer have to transition away from fossil fuels before we can reduce CO2 emissions. We can keep burning fossil fuels AND eliminate CO2 emissions
HOW IT WORKS
So how does this technology work? It is actually an extremely simple idea that is leveraged with some very sophisticated technology. Schematically, Pond’s technology takes flue gases from the combustion of fossil fuels in any industrial process (e.g., coal or natural gas-powered boilers or turbines, cement kilns or steel mills), and then pumps them into a ‘photobioreactor’. This is essentially an aquarium: a large tank of water that is illuminated with high intensity LED light.
High intensity LED Light module used in Pond's Photobioreactor and Sample of algae paste produced by Photobioreactor (courtecty Of Pond Technologies Inc.)
The combination of light, water and CO2 from the flue gas provides the necessary energy and food required for the algae to undergo photosynthesis and grow. And grow they do! Algae are similar to trees or other plants, in that they absorb CO2 via photosynthesis, but they are single celled organisms that grow exponentially under the right conditions. Because algal growth is exponential, there can be as many as six generations of algae produced in a single day! Effectively, Pond’s system creates a never-ending algae bloom, maintaining a maximum growth rate in the algae. Algae-rich water is continuously harvested at the rate at which it grows, removing it as a thick algae paste. This algae paste can then be further processed into alternatives to petrochemical-based products. This system effectively reuses carbon dioxide – greenhouse gas emissions are captured, and then used to make products that then displace more fossil fuels. The possible future of this is a complete carbon reuse, where industrial emissions are transformed into products that in turn further reduce the need to extract more fossil fuels.
Pond Technolgies Process Diagram (from Pond Technologies Inc.)
The system can even use the carbon dioxide present in air to grow algae for food. For example, algae species including Chlorella sp., H. Pluvialis and Spirulina can be grown to produce superfoods if grown in a clean, sterile, controlled environment (clearly not in a system attached to industrial pollution!) These algae-based foods are packed with healthy vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Spirulina has been referred to the most nutrient-dense food on the planet. Haemotococcus algae produces astaxanthin, which is the most powerful antioxidant known. Chlorella powder is more nutrient dense than broccoli, kale or spinach, and has been shown to promote weight loss, support your immune system, and helps your body fight cancer. Pond’s technology can produce these superfoods faster, cleaner, and more cost effectively than any other algae system.
ANY DRAWBACKS TO THIS SOLUTION?
Aren’t there some significant drawbacks or deficiencies with this technology? This is the question that everyone asks when they first hear about the incredible potential of this new technology. One important problem that immediately comes to mind is how will this technology assist in reducing the very significant CO2 emissions associated with the transportation sector? How will it eliminate CO2 emissions from planes, trains, and automobiles? The ground transportation sector demand for fossil fuels is currently in transition, and it may not be long before electric vehicles are the norm - simply because they work better and will be less expensive to operate. And because electric vehicles will be charged with electric power that is typically generated by either natural gas or coal they can therefore have their CO2 removed at source with Pond’s technology. However, before the conversion to electric cars and trains happens, because algae cells are up to 50% oil, they can be processed to produce oil that can be used to create bio-diesel for diesel powered vehicles. Algae can also be used to produce both gasoline and jet fuel through a process called hydrothermal liquefaction that combines algae and water at high temperatures and pressure to produce a form of crude oil. This crude oil can then be refined into gasoline and jet fuel. While burning these fuels will release CO2 again, these algae derived fuels also displace their fossil-fuel based counterparts, and therefore avoid the entire carbon-intensive upstream extraction and processing required to create fossil fuels. On balance, carbon emissions are avoided.
But what about the problem of there still being a finite quantity of fossil fuels to be extracted from the planet, the current glut and low prices of oil and gas notwithstanding? The Peak Oil crisis quickly faded into the background when fracking began releasing millions of barrels of oil and gas onto world markets. This does not change the fact that there is nevertheless a finite supply of economically accessible oil and gas in the world and therefore Pond or no Pond, the world will have to undergo an energy transition to non-fossil fuel based energy sources. But this is not really a problem that affects the effectiveness of Pond Technologies, rather just a reminder of the long-term economics of the fossil fuel industry. However, given the fact that there is still plenty of coal in the ground and still many years of oil and gas left, Pond’s algae technology is currently the only viable fix for fossil fuel CO2 emissions while we are still using them.
“Most positively, this new technology will give governments around the world a cost effective way of having their fossil fuel cake while eating their CO2 reductions as well.”
MAKING IT HAPPEN!
The questions that many of you may now be asking yourself are: how quickly can we expect to see this technology rolled out and adopted? What might get in the way of it being realized? And will it have any specific opposition? All good questions! The good news is that this technology should not meet any real opposition from the big CO2 emitters – the fossil fuel, cement and steel industries who are actually now starting to invest in Pond’s technology. The technology is very cost effective, produces a valuable product, and is a good news story all around for these industries. It will still face the hurdles that any new technology faces, that of initial understanding and acceptance, and of course, finding investors to help grow the opportunity. In fact the only real opposition that this amazingly smart and effective technology may face is from those in the environmental community who now see fossil fuels, and any company that produces, uses, or is associated with fossil fuels, as inherently bad. Because Pond’s technology will now allow us to burn fossil fuels without emitting CO2, not to mention without NOx and SOx, it means that the whole fossil fuel versus renewable fuel debate will become moot, but the point is reducing the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere, not whether or not the fossil fuel industry is good or bad.
Image of World Leaders in Paris Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. (Source: Wikipediea https://www.flickr.com/photos/presidenciamx/23430273715/)
Most positively, this new technology will give governments around the world a cost effective way of having their fossil fuel cake while eating their CO2 reductions as well. In Canada, where I live, we now have a Prime Minister who is committed to reducing greenhouse gases to meet our Country’s Paris Climate Treaty commitments. He is also committed, however, to trying to boost Canada’s flagging resource economy that is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Clearly these two goals would be very difficult to reconcile without Pond’s CO2 emissions solution. But with this technology, Canada, like every other country in the world, can now use fossil fuels and significantly reduce their CO2 emissions!
The importance of Pond’s new technology is starting to be recognized around the world. Recently, Pond Technologies as the lead, Markham District Energy, the National Research Council of Canada, and the City of Markham teamed up to enter the Carbon X-Prize competition, along with 47 other teams from 7 different countries. Just less than a month ago it was announced that Pond Technologies had been selected as one of the 27 semi-finalists for the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon X-Prize. The X-Prize Foundation is an innovation engine, a facilitator of exponential change for the benefit of humanity, and runs global competitions to develop cutting edge technologies.
It is clear that even though we are already in a world seriously challenged by climate change from the CO2 emissions already in the atmosphere (we are now at over 400ppm CO2!), with Pond’s new technology we now at least have a cost effective means to radically reduce our CO2 emissions going forward, and in doing so hopefully allow our biosphere to recover and possibly metabolize the excess CO2 currently in the atmosphere. So with the advent of Pond’s algae-based solution to CO2 emissions, there is a very bright light at the end of the climate change tunnel!
If you would like further information on Pond Technologies Inc. and their algae bioreactor system you can contact Peter Howard at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out their website at www.pondtechnologiesinc.com.
About the Author: Craig Applegath is an architect, urban designer, and a pioneer in the planning and design of regenerative buildings, urban resilience, and symbiotic cities. Craig is the moderator of SymbioticCities.net and a principal and founding principal of the DIALOG Toronto studio. He looks forward to hearing your thoughts about this blog.