Growing algae, saving energy, & capturing carbon: P2P microalgae technology

[Canada] At Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC)* in Grande Prairie, Alberta, a remarkable piece of microalgae technology has been developed. It is a photobioreactor, a mobile set of glass tubes filled with bubbling microalgae culture. Situated in GPRC’s glass-walled solarium, this computer-automated device cultivates microalgae using sunlight energy.

The device is known as Pollutants to Products (P2P) Microalgae Technology, and it is the most efficient photobioreactor system in the world. Using patented technology developed by GPRC researcher Dr. Weixing Tan, this system uses spatial sunlight attenuation and a specialized nutrient formula to optimize microalgae growth. This technology is on the cusp of making a real difference in the world of cleantech, but it needs support from industry investors to progress to the next stage of development.

The GPRC Pollutants to Products research solarium.

Why Grow Microalgae?

Microalgae are single-celled organisms that are normally found in freshwater systems. This versatile plant matter can be used to produce biofuels, medicine, vitamin supplements, cosmetics, and feed for livestock. Microalgae is also a natural decontaminator, removing toxins from wastewater and absorbing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the air. In fact, it is up to 100 times more efficient at capturing carbon than traditional crops while growing much faster and using a fraction of the space. Biologists are only now becoming more aware of the value microalgae holds for humans.

Dr. Tan has spent 11 years researching ways to maximize the usefulness of microalgae. When he first began studying the organism, he was impressed by its potential for carbon capture and emissions reduction. “I found that nobody had been successful in growing microalgae on a large scale,” he said. “So I thought I could make a difference.”

The photobioreactor prototype.

How is P2P Microalgae Technology Different?

Most bioreactors rely on artificial light sources — a misguided approach, according to Tan. “When you use fossil fuels to produce electricity, you emit carbon dioxide,” Tan explained, “and you will never capture enough carbon to negate your emission. It’s pointless.” Tan knew he needed to use a natural light source for his photobioreactor to be net positive.

However, natural light is difficult to control. Too little sunlight will inhibit the microalgae’s growth (photoinhibition), and too much sunlight will damage them (photosaturation). To solve this problem, Tan drew inspiration from nature. In ponds and lakes, microalgae retreat to deeper waters during the hottest part of the day, where the sun’s rays are dimmer and the temperature cooler.

Tan’s solution was to manipulate the angle at which sunlight strikes the system, facing it parallel rather than perpendicular to the sun’s rays. Tan notes that termites use the same strategy to keep cool by building the leading edge of their mounds to face due south, ensuring direct sunlight does not cause the mound to overheat. In Tan’s device, a computer automation system tracks the sun’s progress through the sky and keeps the device positioned at the correct angle. It was this concept of sunlight attenuation, now patent-protected in Canada, that Tan considers his most important breakthrough.

This simple animation demonstrates active spatial sunlight attenuation in action. The system reduces direct sunlight exposure without wasting any energy.

What’s Next for Microalgae?

P2P Microalgae Technology has a number of practical and industrial uses. Organizations concerned about minimizing their carbon footprint would particularly benefit from becoming a partner on this technology. “Oil and gas companies, power companies, they all emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. But this system will help them capture, detoxify, and decontaminate,” Tan says. Others may also be interested in the profit potential of microalgae’s valuable by-products.

The potential of P2P Microalgae Technology is practically endless, but it will need industry buy-in to take it to the next level. “We need investment, we need support from the industry and the public in general,” Tan said. “Billions of years ago, microalgae enriched the atmosphere with oxygen and allowed the first living organisms to evolve, sustaining life on this planet. Now, I believe it will repeat its contribution to the Earth.”

If you are interested in learning more about P2P Microalgae Technology, or finding out how you can support research and development, click here.

Click here to visit P2P on the GPRC website.


Photo: Randy Vanderveen. Grande Prairie Alberta 12/19/2013 Weixing Tan in the Solarium at GPRC.

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