Maryland Startup Gobbles Greenhouse Gases With Algae

[USA] Greenhouse gas emissions have proven a tough issue to address, because stopping or even slowing down the release of pollutants into the air often involves retrofitting our power plants with technology that cost lots of money.

So what if there was a carbon trapping technology that paid for itself, and not just in the long-term, but almost immediately? One Maryland startup thinks it’s created just the thing.

A prototype and an idea

Feng Chen says he first started studying microalgae a few decades ago. Back then, he had no idea anyone could see algae as a potentially planet-saving product.

“At that many time we were mainly studying that taxonomy,” Chen recalls with a smile. “We were mainly trying to differentiate different algal species under the microscope.”

These are the 10-foot demonstration bioreactors at Back River. The purple LED lights mimic natural light; Mroz designed those as well. (Jonathan Wilson/WAMU)
These are the 10-foot demonstration bioreactors at Back River. The purple LED lights mimic natural light; Mroz designed those as well. (Jonathan Wilson/WAMU)

Chen is now an associate professor at Maryland’s Institute for Marine and Environmental Technology.

A few years ago a man named Bob Mroz, president of a startup called Hy-Tek Bio, needed someone with Chen’s expertise. He walked into IMET with a prototype and an idea.

Mroz is a computer and mechanical engineer by training, and his prototype was a bioreactor. The main chamber of the bioreactor consisted of a two-foot clear tube with LED lights running down the center.

“I thought we’d sort of get laughed out – we’re nobody, right? But he said, ‘These are really effective bioreactors to grow algae,’” Mroz says.

Chen ordered a half dozen of Mroz’s bioreactors for his lab, and Mroz asked for something in return.

He wanted Chen to find a strain of algae that could survive — and thrive — while gobbling up high concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Finding the right strain

Algae, like its cousins in the plant kingdom, has the ability to digest carbon dioxide, the dominant greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.

“Algae can do that — particularly for microalgae — can do this very efficiently,” Chen explains, “More efficiently than trees, than other plants.”

After about six months, Chen and his students found one such strain that occurred naturally in the Chesapeake Bay. He strolls over to a corner of his lab were several large beakers bubble with green liquid.

“This is the strain we provide to Hy-Tek Bio. This is a strain called HTB1. It actually stands for Hy-Tek Bio Strain 1,” he says.

“It just so happened that strain had never been isolated before,” Mroz says, “so we got to name it.”

Mroz wanted to capture carbon dioxide usually released by power plants and landfills and other industrial facilities, and use it to grow algae.

Algae can then be dried or dewatered and sold for use in all sorts of products, such as biofuels, nutritional supplements and food additives.

An example of a popular nutritional supplement that makes use of both lutein and zeaxanthin. (Jonathan Wilson/WAMU)
An example of a popular nutritional supplement that makes use of both lutein and zeaxanthin. (Jonathan Wilson/WAMU)

Greenhouse gas mitigation — the real story

Mroz says at first it was algae’s potential as a biofuel that interested him. But soon he started thinking that those greenhouse gases digested at the start of the process were the real story.

“When I found that it takes two tons of CO₂ to make one ton of algae, I sort of forgot about this biofuel thing,” he says. “I said, ‘Why aren’t we using this to clean up the atmosphere?’”

Hy-Tek Bio got a $250,000 grant from the state to try his technique at the methane-emitting Back River Wastewaster Treatment Plant in Baltimore.

Back River takes municipal waste and isolates the water from solids. It then treats the water and pumps it back into the river. Special bacteria then digests the solid waste, leaving only methane gas behind. The plant then uses the methane to generate power: 3 megawatts of power to be exact.

“They almost have it right — they’ve almost closed the loop,” Mroz says. “When they burn the methane, they shoot all of this exhaust gas, which is full of CO₂ and nitrogen oxides, into the atmosphere. And that’s where we come in.”

The Hy-tek Bio facility at Back River is still, essentially, an experiment. But it’s an experiment that’s worked well enough that the city of Baltimore has already asked Mroz to scale up.

Hy-Tek is currently using 10 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions at Back River, but is now working on capturing 100 percent of those emissions to use for algae production.

“Algae eats all the CO2 and all the nitrogen oxide, and only thing that comes out of our tanks is photosynthesis pure oxygen, and lots of algae,” Mroz says.

These aren't mock-ups; they are the next evolution of Hy-Tek's bioreactors. If they remind you of balloons, perhaps it's because they're made up of layers of Mylar (with a healthy portion of Kevlar sandwiched in between). When filled with liquid, Mroz says they'll be as stiff as plastic. But this option is a lot cheaper, and easily transportable when not in use. (Jonathan Wilson/WAMU)
These aren’t mock-ups; they are the next evolution of Hy-Tek’s bioreactors. If they remind you of balloons, perhaps it’s because they’re made up of layers of Mylar (with a healthy portion of Kevlar sandwiched in between). When filled with liquid, Mroz says they’ll be as stiff as plastic. But this option is a lot cheaper, and easily transportable when not in use. (Jonathan Wilson/WAMU)

High value green stuff

Mroz’s idea wouldn’t be nearly as promising if the end product wasn’t valuable. But HTB1 is high in lipids, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin, two ingredients in popular nutritional supplements.

Mroz says HTB1 powder could sell for well north of $40 a pound.

Vincent Scarfo is his long-time friend and business partner. He says all this might sound too good to be true, but Hy-Tek’s pitch to municipalities will be simple.

“There are a lot of different technologies out there — companies out there that are racing to some sort of climate mitigation,” Scarfo says. “This is the first one I’ve seen that actually not only pays for itself, but provides the end user a revenue stream as well.”

At Back River, Hy-Tek is currently constructing three 20-foot tall bioreactors. Each will hold 1800 gallons of algae culture.

That sounds like a lot, but Back River’s generation facility only produces 3 million watts or 3 megawatts of power. An average coal-fired power plant produces 500 million watts of power – and emits a lot more greenhouse gas.

“One 500 MW power plant, if you mitigate that 100 percent, you’re looking at 7000 tons of algae a day,” Mroz says.

Hy-Tek is about 6 to 9 months away from bringing its product to market.

Questions remain, such as what happens to the algae market if more and more municipalities start producing it in large quantities? But if Mroz and Hy-Tek bio can provide the right answers a lot of cities and towns across the country could be seeing a lot of green — in more ways than one.

Mroz holds up a sample of the chicken manure solution that he can use to feed the algae. Hy-Tek has come up with a method to take advantage of the nutrients in poultry runoff while eliminating the nasty odor, making it easier to work with. (Jonathan Wilson/WAMU)
Mroz holds up a sample of the chicken manure solution that he can use to feed the algae. Hy-Tek has come up with a method to take advantage of the nutrients in poultry runoff while eliminating the nasty odor, making it easier to work with. (Jonathan Wilson/WAMU)

Solving another pollution problem

Hy-Tek Bio is always looking for ways to improve its process, and Mroz recently stumbled upon something that could simultaneously grow algae more efficiently and tackle an entirely different type of pollution: poultry runoff.

Runoff of chicken manure from poultry farms on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is a major source of excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus – which can cause major problems for water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.

At a recent meeting with representatives from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, discussing the problem, when another idea popped into his head.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. Chicken manure is loaded with nitrogen, phosphorus — it’s perfect!’” he says. “So I went to Dr. Chen and said, ‘Can we use chicken manure?’ He said, ‘Sure you can, but I’m not.’ No one wants to use chicken manure because it’s terrible to work with.”

So Mroz and his team set to work finding a way to make chicken manure less, well, nasty.

After months of work, Hy-Tek has come up with a chicken manure solution with less odor than household cleaning solution. It’s also virtually transparent; this is important because it won’t block the light that algae needs once it’s added to the algae culture.

“It actually captures the nitrogen, the ammonia, the urea and the phosphorus in the liquid becomes a highly concentrated liquid nutrient. And we can literally store that for years without losing its effectiveness,” Mroz says.

The chicken manure nutrient solution is also cheaper than the supplements Mroz was feeding his algae before — it costs him a fraction of a penny per gallon.

“And I’ve got the ability to suck out the phosphorus — and give it back to the crop growers on the Eastern Shore — as a purely nitrogen, extremely-low phosphorus liquid nutrient for the crops,” Mroz says. “I can have high nutrient, low-phosphorus for my tanks, I can have high-phosphorus low nutrient for other growers and help eliminate runoff into the Bay. Neat stuff.”

 

Photo: This is the finished algae product could look like; because HTB1 is so full of lipid oil, along with nutrients such as lutein and zeaxanthin, it can be used in a huge number of products, and sold, Mroz says, for $40-$100 per pound.

 

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