Could algae be a secret weapon in the climate change crisis? This man says yes

For about a year, an Ontario-based clean-technology company has been running a demonstration algae plant out of the sprawling St. Marys Cement factory site. Its founder believes algae can play a key role in reducing carbon emissions.

Steve Martin grows algae from smokestack emissions

Steve Martin, the CEO of Pond Technologies, says the potential to reduce carbon footprints at major industrial emitters using algae is enormous. (Shannon Martin/ CBC)

Think algae is just that stinky gunk that litters some lakeshores?

It's so much more, according to Steve Martin and his team at Pond Technologies.

"I'm the guy who has the crazy idea that we can grow algae off of the industrial emissions and help to save the world," Martin said, as he was standing inside one of his company's plants in St. Marys, Ont., about 170 kilometres west of Toronto. 

For about a year, Martin and a small crew have been running a demonstration algae plant out of a small tent at the sprawling site of St. Marys Cement factory.

"There's this feeling that we see a smokestack and we say, 'Look, that's evil, that's got to go,'" he said.

Some of the algae harvest produced at the Pond Tech facility in St. Marys, Ont. (Submitted by Pond Tech)

But he says cement is the most manufactured product in the world, used to build things like hydroelectric dams.

"For a tonne of cement, you make a tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2). So we need to find a way to use that and luckily nature has provided algae." 

How it works

A series of pipes from the smokestacks at the cement plant run to Pond Tech's tent, transporting CO2 into a giant, 22,000-litre tank known as a bioreactor.

The algae then does what it does best, according to project manager Tim Everett.

It gobbles up the CO2.  

The result is about 20 kilograms of a thick algae paste that is produced daily. 

"It really is almost a limitless byproduct," said Everett, 40, a mechanical engineer.

Tim Everett, the site manager at the St. Marys project, says carbon dioxide super charges the growth of algae. (Shannon Martin/ CBC)

The team then cooks up a series of green superfoods, including chlorella and spirulina, as well as feed for farm animals, and even cosmetics.

Martin admits the technology isn't new, and Pond Tech isn't the only one doing it.

But he thinks their methods are the most advanced and he's hoping to make a serious dent in carbon emissions. 

"The potential is enormous," he said.

The 22,000-litre tank inside the Pond Tech project at St. Marys Cement factory. (Shannon Martin/CBC)

"If we put this technology on just 10 per cent of the industrial emitters in North America, we are a long way to meeting the goals of CO2 reduction."

Two other projects are underway, including one with Markham District Energy's power plant and Stelco, the steel manufacturing plant in Hamilton, Ont.

Carbon removal pricey and limited, critic says

Still, some say the technology is expensive, and its use is limited.

"It's kind of like using a mop to clean up water on the floor while the tap is still running. We need to be thinking of ways to turn off that tap," said Sarah Buchanan with Environmental Defence, a watchdog group out of Toronto.

She says carbon removal technologies are helpful in a limited way, but the focus should be on clean alternatives that can produce energy without any carbon pollution. 

Sarah Buchanan, the clean economy program manager at Environmental Defence, says carbon removal technology is akin to 'using a mop to clean up water on the floor while the tap is still running. We need to be thinking of ways to turn off that tap.' (Submitted by Environmental Defence)

"The only silver bullet solution really is we have to stop burning fossil fuels. There's a lot of great renewable clean technologies that can help us do that."

Martin agrees, but he believes his project can play a vital role.

"I would say it's not an a la carte menu, it's a buffet," he said. "We have to do it all."


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