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Capturing Carbon in Calgary

May 11, 2014


A team of University of Calgary researchers has been awarded funding for their project, Cost Effective Biotechnology for Carbon Capture and Re-Use. Front row, from left: Nader Mahinpey, Marc Strous, Joenel Alcantara, Hector de la Hoz Siegler, and Peter Dunfield. Back row, from left: Peter Zao (undergraduate student), Karen Canon-Rubio (MSc student), Christopher Chow (undergraduate student), Christine Sharp (postdoctoral fellow), Miao Zhou (MSc student), Suraj Anthwal (Mitacs Globalink). Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Ateam of six University of Calgary researchers has been awarded funding for their project, Cost Effective Biotechnology for Carbon Capture and Re-Use, based on the concept of using algal biotechnology to capture and reuse carbon from gasses emitted from burning fossil fuels.

“We aim to capture carbon from stack gases, which are generated when you burn fossil fuels for energy at power plants or operations in the oilsands. They generate gas with a lot of carbon dioxide, and we capture that biologically with algae,” says principal investigator Marc Strous, professor in the Department of Geoscience at the University of Calgary. “The aim of our project is to create a new process for this that is cost-effective compared to current technology. That’s the current bottleneck: it’s possible, but expensive.“

The team will use three innovative strategies to reduce the cost of the process. “First, we will work at very high levels of pH and alkalinity, which helps the CO2 to dissolve more easily. We also will add carbonates as a pH buffer, which theoretically improves the whole uptake of the CO2,” says Strous. “Secondly, we will grow the algae on a plastic surface as a bio film, so we get very nimble bioreactors that can be constructed inexpensively, and the concentration is also much easier.” The algae biofilm is then scraped off the plastic surface, requiring little power generation.

The third strategy involves using communities of microbes instead of single strains. Single strains lack the resilience of algal communities to withstand harsh Canadian climates. “The climate for algal biotechnology in Alberta is great because we have sunshine, but the challenge is that the temperature is never high consistently, so you need a biology that can cope with big temperature swings, day to night, winter to summer,” says Strous.

“We selected this project for funding because it embodies the Energy Innovations themes of discovering new sources and planning for the future,” said Chris Clarkson, strategic research theme leader of Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow. “It also highlights the role of biology and medical science in the energy industry, areas that will grow in importance as the industry diversifies. The University of Calgary believes this interdisciplinary approach can lead to significant advancements in energy research.”

The researchers see this project fitting into the goals of the provincial and federal governments to diversify Alberta’s economy beyond fossil fuels, and prepare workers for this new economy. “It’s about capacity building, not only in terms of infrastructure, but also building up University of Calgary students for success. We want a diverse base of bright, innovative and curious students that want to take this project to the next step and tackle these world problems,” says Joenel Alcantara, researcher and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases.

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