The Algae Whisperer

March 24, 2015 |

the-algae-whisperer-smA new project aims to capture atmospheric CO2, affordably, using traits and techniques known to algae for millenia.

“CO2, CO2 everywhere, not a kilo to have,” remarks Dr. John Benemann, as The Digest checks in with the renowned Dr. kNOw and his colleague in a new project, Dr. Michael Huesemann of PNNL.

Huesemann is a staff research engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the principal investigator in a remarkable gambit , dubbed “AlgaeAirFix”, aimed at using algae to accelerate and industrialize the extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere.

There must be 200 companies around the world desperate for an affordable source of CO2 to power their industrial biotechnologies, to produce fuels, feed, food, biomaterials and heavens knowns what else. “Where do we get the CO2?” Benemann asks.

Meanwhile, there must be 200 countries around the world in some state of agitation about the amount of CO2 in the air around them, concerned about everything from rising seas and temperatures to increasingly violent and erratic weather.

The worst problem, ever

It might be simply be the worst problem in the whole wide world. That is, an inability to affordably concentrate atmospheric CO2 and feed it to industrial or chemical applications, and thereby need less fossil carbon obtained from safely-sequestered petroleum or natural gas.

Solve that, you’ve powered civilization, sustainably, for a couple of hundred years, and solved the climate problem.

Step up right here for your Nobel Prize, ma’am.

To date, no one has figured out how to get the CO2 out of the air, or the air out of the CO2, on an affordable basis. A 350 parts per million concentration of CO2 is enough, we are informed, to set off the greenhouse effect (when combined with other gases, such as methane).

But try to make a living extracting $1 worth of CO2 from every 200,000 pounds of air you process.

Prospecting for CO2 gold, er, or maybe not.

Let me put it this way: on average, there’s $20 worth of gold in every 200,000 pounds of Mother Earth, on a worldwide average. And I’m sorry to say that, unless you’re reading this in the Yukon and it’s 1897 — and you aren’t and it’s not — you’re not going to make a fortune panning for gold in the earth beneath your feet. And you won’t make one panning for CO2 in the sky above you, either.

Yes, CO2 is concentrated in the atmosphere at 70,000 times the rate of gold in the dirt, but gold is worth 1.28 million times more, pound for pound.

So, that’s the problem, and for now, algae project developers have opted to acquire CO2 that has been already aggregated.  As the authors of the newly funded AlgaeAirFix project note in the project objectives:

Microalgae biofuels have attracted considerable attention and are variously projected to be capable of contributing up to 10% of US oil consumption. However, such projections are typically based on studies that address only water and land resources in favorable regions of the US, without considering the availability of suitable sources of CO2, such as flue gases from power plants, currently required to cultivate microalgae. 

If included, the potential for microalgae biofuels would be reduced by well over ten-fold, as relatively few CO2 sources are located where sufficient available water and land allow for large-scale microalgae production. 

So that’s the bad news. And here’s the worse news from our intrepid researchers:

Current processes for supplying algal cultures with air-CO2, either by bubbling air or separating CO2 from air, are too energy consuming.

But it may prove out that a mechanism that algae already have in their toolkit can provide the solution.

“The algae have a carbon concentrating mechanism, or a CCM,” says Huesemann. “It’s very well known, people have studied it for many years. They concentrate the CO2 when they take it up.”

And that’s the focus of this project: using algae to concentrate atmospheric CO2 at economically viable rates.

The objective of this project is to develop and demonstrate AlgaeAirFix, a novel process that overcomes current limitations of air-CO2 supply to microalgae cultures. It would allow affordably achieving high productivities without the need for an enriched CO2 source, such as power plant flue gases. 

How does it work?

PNNL has designed and built LED-lighted and temperature-controlled indoor raceway ponds to enable the cultivation of microalgae strains under climate-simulated conditions which reproduce the light and water temperature fluctuations encountered in outdoor ponds.

PNNL has designed and built LED-lighted and temperature-controlled indoor raceway
ponds to enable the cultivation of microalgae strains under climate-simulated conditions which reproduce the light and water temperature fluctuations encountered in outdoor ponds.

As the project description reveals:

The “AlgaeAirFix” process increases the rate of transfer of CO2 from air into large-scale algal pond cultures by means of a combination of physical, chemical and, most importantly, biological processes. The process is based on using the inherent “carbon concentrating mechanism” (CCM) found in most microalgae, to help increase the currently slow transfer rates of CO2 from air into water (CO2air – CO2aq), 

This research will combine laboratory studies under controlled conditions and outdoor pond cultivation studies…a three-fold improvement in productivity compared to control cultures is anticipated during the initial phase of this project with a further similar increase projected from future R&D. 

So, what we are doing is, essentially, getting algae to do something they know how to do, only faster and better. Consider it the work of The Algae Whisperer.

The Algae Whisperer

John Benemann tells me, “If there’s any whispering that could take place, I would be having algae explain things to me, not the other way around.” Ah, the stories algae could tell.

But, for now, it’s back to the bioeconomy, where we have to do the whispering to get the algae to speed up the CO2 accumulation. The benefit? As the project description relates in “potential impacts”:

“The AlgaeAirFix Process will affordably supply CO2 from air to algal mass cultures, thus avoiding this central resource limitation of microalgae biofuels production and making it more akin to cultivation of other biofuel crops that do not require concentrated sources of CO2, but without competing with traditional agriculture, by virtue of it being able to use saline, brackish and wastewaters not useable in agriculture. It would allow expanding the production of algal biofuels from a small niche market currently, to a significant US energy resource.”

But, here’s the other piece of bad news.

“Algae haven’t evolved to serve us, but to serve themselves,” notes Benemann, drily. “Nature has very low nutrient content, very low carbon content, and they evolved to grab what they need, and take it up into themselves, and they have developed a whole set of enzymes to do this.”

Which is to say — since no one has developed the capability yet as The Algae Whisperer, it is not going to be possible to explain in a precise fashion to the algae how we want them to improve. So there are substantial risks in this 2-year project, based though it is on some very promising resuilts in shake flasks. Long ways from Stockholm and the Nobel lecture, on this one, for now.

Long odds, worthy goal

The odds of success? Well, it will either work or it won’t. We have to look and see.

But here’s a question. Won’t it simply produce algae more cost effectively so that they can become a more abundant form of one-celled snack food for every two-celled giant that manages to leap or fly into an algae pond? They seem to arrive at certain algae enterprises like hungry travelers pulling over at a roadside Burger Heaven.

“That’s another topic for another day,” says John Benemann. “Right now, we have this project. It looks good in small flasks. So, we’ll look further now, and have more data later.”

Psst. You, the alga on the left. Yes, you.

Come over here. I won’t hurt you. Relax. 

My friend, here’s what I would like for you to do. You see that molecule of CO2 over there, above my shoulder and to your right? No, the one over there. Yes, that one. Now, I’d like you to grab it, and…

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