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miércoles, 4 de enero de 2017

Finding out about the Canada’s first algal biorefinery project – ACC demonstration plant

New Year, new dreams, new projects… We begin 2017 with several posts about CO2 conversion technologies. Today, in the first one of them, an overview on the Canada’s first algal biorefinery demonstration project is provided. It includes an interesting interview with one of the responsible for the success of this engaging project. Let us start by knowing more about the background.


The Government of Canada is supporting clean energy research and development at all stages of the innovation spectrum. In particular, it is boosting later stage technology demonstrations to help speed the commercialization and adoption of cleaner techniques and methods. In this sense, in 2013, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) and Pond Technologies announced a multi-million dollar investment to build and operate a demonstration-scale algal biorefinery facility in Alberta.

While the project’s initial engineering phase was completed, the deployment strategy was restructured due to the partners’ evolving business needs. CNRL became an observer and St Marys Cement entered into the partnership. Thus, in 2015, NRC, Pond Technologies and St Marys Cement finalized the details to implement an algal biorefinery at a St Marys Cement plant in Ontario. This Algal Carbon Conversion (ACC) demonstration facility would recycle CO2 emissions emanating from the plant’s operations by incorporating them into algal biomass.

Current status

Now, the collaborative effort is bearing fruit and the ACC demonstration facility is running. A 25,000 L photobioreactor within the plant is recycling carbon dioxide and other airborne industrial pollutants into algal biomass that can be further converted into sustainable products, including renewable fuels and biomaterials. The launch of this first algal biorefinery is an example of the commitment of the Canadian Government to accelerate clean energy innovation in the country. More details about the technologies involved and the future perspectives can be found in the interview below.

Figure 1. Photograph taken during the ACC Algal Biorefinery Showcase - November 3, 2016 (courtesy of NRC)

The partners and their involvement

NRC is the Government of Canada's premier research and technology organization (RTO). They provide innovation support, strategic research, and scientific and technical services. NRC’s Algal Carbon Conversion (ACC) flagship program is helping to convert carbon dioxide emissions into usable algal biomass, renewable fuels and other value-added bioproducts through integrated algal biorefineries. In this project, NRC contributes its extensive expertise in microalgae biology, cultivation and bioprocessing, as well as provide selected algae strains to the project and on-site resources to manage and operate the demonstration biorefinery.

Pond Technologies, founded in Toronto (Canada) on May 2007, is a nutrition and carbon capture company. Their mission is to use microalgae to solve some of the largest problems facing the world today. It has developed a universal algae platform that provides optimal growth conditions for virtually any algae strain. Using a variety of CO2 feedstocks, Pond has developed proprietary photobioreactors and control systems that enable production of revenue-generating algae products. For pollution abatement, Pond absorbs the CO2 contained in the emissions of major industrial facilities to grow algae for biofuels, bioplastics and land reclamation. For nutraceutical products, Pond uses beverage grade CO2 to grow algae for high-value food additives. In this project, it has supplied the photobioreactor and supporting structures, equipment and personnel.

St Marys Cement is a leading provider of cementitious materials to customers in the Great Lakes region. Since 1912, St Marys Cement has contributed to the growth and prosperity of the region, providing material for infrastructure improvements and new construction. Today, St Marys Cement is part of Votorantim Cimentos, one of the largest building materials providers in the world. The demonstration biorefinery is located at St Marys Cement plant in Ontario and fed with the CO2 emissions emanating from the plant’s operations.

Interview with Dr. Stephen O’Leary

Lastly, an interview with Dr. Stephen O’Leary, Director of the National Research Council of Canada’s Algal Carbon Conversion Flagship Program (Aquatic and Crop Resource Development). He answers in detail to questions about the characteristics, technologies and short future of the algal biorefinery.
Acknowledgments: I would like to express my appreciation to Stephen and Meagan Sylvester (Media and Public Relations Officer, Communications Branch, NRC) for their kind collaboration in the preparation of this post.

[BioRefineries Blog] The ACC algal biorefinery recycles CO2 emissions emanating from the St Marys Cement plant in Ontario. It is necessary some kind of pretreatment of the gas flow before feeding the algae? What is the demo plant capacity in terms of captured CO2?
[Stephen O’Leary] No, we don’t pretreat the gas before we introduce it into the photobioreactor. We do bring the temperature of the gas down to 40 degrees C or less and remove excess moisture through a condensation trap, but we do not “scrub” the component gasses.  We monitor CO2, O2, NO, NO2, and SO2 concentrations in the gas as it comes into the PBR from the kiln. We similarly monitor the gas that exits from the PBR. Our target is for the 25,000 L PBR to produce 25 kg of dry weight algae each day, representing ~ 45 kg of CO2 removed daily by photosynthesis. This is a pre-commercial demonstration scale.

[BRB] The core of the facility is a 25,000 L photobioreactor (PBR). Could you briefly explain how it works? What kind of algae is cultivated in the PBR?
[SOL] From the outside, the PBR looks like a large steel box that is 5 m tall, 2.5 m wide and 2 m deep. On one face of the PBR are pipes and hoses through which gasses and liquids are pumped in and out. On the opposite face, a series of high intensity LED lights are mounted, they are evenly spaced up and down and side to side, facing into the tank. Within the tank, there are tubular light guides that direct the light from the LEDs and disperse it completely throughout the volume of the algae culture within the tank. The LEDs and light guides, as well as the tank itself, were designed and built by our partner Pond Technologies. The algae is cultivated within the PBR through the addition of water, nutrients, light (from the LEDs) and CO2 from the cement kiln gas. The gas is introduced at the bottom of the PBR and bubbles upwards keeping the algae culture well mixed.
Within the 25,000 L PBR we are cultivating strains of microalgae that NRC scientists have collected from waterbodies within a 50 km radius of the pilot plant – to ensure they are native to the region. We have isolated, identified and preselected strains for positive growth characteristics and tolerance to flue gasses at NRC’s Marine Research Station in Ketch Harbour (Nova Scotia, Canada). So far, we have been primarily cultivating novel strains of Chlorella and Scenedesmus at the pilot plant in St Marys.  

[BRB] What are the technologies involved in the harvesting and dewatering stages?
[SOL] We are currently using conventional “off the shelf” centrifuge and heat drier technologies to harvest and dewater the algae. In the new year (referring to 2017) we will be testing novel technologies being developed by NRC engineers that make use of electrical fields and new cellular disruption technologies to harvest cells more efficiently in terms of cost and energy required, and to process the biomass when it is concentrated but still wet (suspended in liquid). I can’t say more about these new technologies at this time.

[BRB] What is the concept of biorefinery used to valorize the algal biomass? In other words, what are the processes utilized and the final bioproducts (biofuels, bioplastics…) obtained?
[SOL] The final products for any particular algal carbon conversion plant will depend on the needs of the host industry (the greenhouse gas emitter that the plant is connected to) and the local markets they can sell into. Within NRC, we have a number of current R&D projects exploring the feasibility and opportunity to convert algae biomass into a variety of marketable products including: biofuels (biodiesel, bio-methane, HTL oil), soil amendment products, bioplastics, platform chemicals and animal feeds (in some specific cases).

[BRB] How long will the tests last? What are the data that are being monitored?
[SOL] The ACC pilot plant at St Marys Cement is entering into routine operation and testing now. We expect to be collecting data from this demonstration site for the next 8 – 12 months. We will be monitoring algae growth rate, yield and CO2 consumption, as well as power consumption and cost to operate the algae cultivation and harvesting equipment. Downstream, we are also collecting data on the possible commercial uses of the biomass produced through conversion to biofuels, bioplastics, etc.

[BRB] About the near future, it is expected to scale-up the facility and/or deploy the same model in other cement plants? What are the following steps?
[SOL] The current 25,000 L PBR is a pre-commercial unit. Within a year we hope to begin to work with Pond Technologies on the deployment of a commercial scale unit, likely to be closer to 1,000,000 L in volume. This unit may be deployed at a cement factory or a municipal power generating station, but really it could go anywhere where there is an appropriate flue stack available. We have also partnered with Pond Technologies, the City of Markham and Markham District Energy in the Carbon XPRIZE competition which may see us deploy this technology at a natural gas power plant test facility in Alberta (Canada) in 2018-2019 (more information about the Carbon XPrize competition here).

[BRB] Could you share your thoughts about the vision of the ACC Flagship Program and its impact in the Canadian bioeconomy?
[SOL] The vision of the ACC Flagship Program is for NRC to work with Canadian industry to address the issue of CO2 emissions while simultaneously generating economically and environmentally-sustainable opportunities for Canadian companies. The ACC Flagship program strives to position Canada as a world leader in converting carbon dioxide emissions into algal biomass, renewable biofuels, sustainable biomaterials and other value-added products through algal biorefineries integrated with Canadian industries. We expect Canada to become a world-leading developer and exporter of environmental technologies, including ACC technologies, that will both reduce the environmental footprint of conventional carbon emitting industries while simultaneously creating a new source of sustainable bioproducts with their own economic value.

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