Carbon-munching algae turn pollution into products

08/24/2012 19:22

IMFA:  Algae have been around a long time before us humans, and if we don’t take care of this planet they’ll probably still be here thriving years after us –– munching and cleaning up what we’ve left behind.

But an Israeli invention that hooks up power plant smokestacks to hungry algae living in nearby ponds could solve a number of our pollution problems and allow us all to keep on living on Planet Earth.

The Israeli company Seambiotic, based in Tel Aviv and headed by Noam Menczel, is a 15-person team bent on helping algae, and Mother Nature, do our dirty work.

The company has developed a patented technology to divert chimney effluents from power plants through algae ponds. The carbon-based waste that would normally go up in smoke instead becomes a valuable food source for the algae.

Algae ponds capture carbon from power plants

This could be one channel to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. And there’s another advantage: The process results in carbon sequestering -- carbon capturing, in “green” lingo -- producing a plentiful nutraceutical made by the algae that is much in demand, especially in Eastern countries such as China.

Seambiotic’s pilot plant in Israel, in development over the last five years or so, is located at a power plant owned by the government-run Israel Electric Corporation in Ashkelon. Bureaucratic red tape has slowed the Seambiotic plant from going commercial because it sits next to a protected nature reserve, but the facility has proven that the concept works.

Transforming emissions to fuel or feed

It is estimated that power plants create 40 percent of all greenhouse gases -- the gases that are causing global warming. By using tactics designed by nature, Seambiotic has the power to transform these emissions to usable products.

It is not just a dream. The marine-based plants called algae grow like crazy when they are fed carbon dioxide and sunlight. Knowing this, the company uses a strain of algae called skeletonema, believed to be the most useful for sequestering carbon and for creating biofuel.

Thanks to the success of the pilot site in Israel, the company has signed a deal with the fifth largest utilities company in China, which runs 150 power plants. By September, a 10-hectare (nearly 25-acre) pond in China will be sucking up carbon dioxide effluent from a 500-megawatt power plant, and producing rich algae-based chemicals for the vitamin industry at the same time.

According to Menczel, this will handle only about 1% of the effluent, but if 10 of these ponds are built onsite, as is the ultimate plan and carrying capacity, the Seambiotic solution could take care of 10% of a power plant’s carbon emissions, keeping them from being released into the air.

“One percent doesn't seem like a big number,” he says. “But it is much more than zero. Every 10 hectares could be scaled up to 10% and now that's a big change. And in the meantime, it will produce products for the food supplement market which will be profitable. So it's actually two birds with one stone: carbon capture and making money out of food supplements,” he says.

Heading to the US market

With business agreements on other continents including two in the United States, Seambiotic’s business model is to license its technology while providing Israeli management to oversee setup. In China, the company also has a 25% stake in the algae byproduct. The remaining three-quarters goes back to the power plant enterprise.

In parallel, though this is not yet the biggest part of the company’s business, Seambiotic is developing commercially viable options for using algae as a biofuel. In the United States, there are two big players already in this field, Sapphire Energy funded by Bill Gates and the Rockefellers, and Synthetic Genomics. Seambiotic’s management envisions these competitors as either business partners or IP buyers one day.

In an alternate channel, the company is also working with NASA’s head research department in Ohio to make algae-based biofuel commercially viable. The tiny green plants can produce an anticipated 30 times more oil than standard biofuel crops such as corn and sugarcane.

Algae-based fuels have a high freezing point, making them invaluable in certain applications needed by NASA, says Menczel, who notes that the company is also in talks with an oil refinery in Cicely, Italy.

Close to breaking even, the Israeli firm has a five-year plan to go public, and to set up five operating algae farms, similar to those in China, in America and Europe. And let’s not forget the one in Israel, which Menczel expects to have up and running despite the red tape.

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