Scientists at Innoventures Canada (I-CAN) have reported significant progress towards creating a system that would convert carbon dioxide diverted from industrial facilities into valuable products using Earth’s oldest plant life – micro-algae.

I-CAN is a not-for-profit consortium of ten Canadian research corporations who have joined together for key strategic projects. Its CARS project – Carbon Algae Recycling System proposes to feed flue gas, such as CO2, directly from industry into ponds to feed the growth of micro-algae, which would then be harvested and processed into value-added products such as ethanol, bio-diesel or fertilizer  These would be sold to offset the cost of capturing the carbon. The initial project aims to consume up to 30 per cent of the greenhouse gases produced by the average 300 megawatt coal-fired power plant.

According to John McDougall, vice-chairman for I-CAN “Algae growth research isn’t new, but our goal is. Other algae projects are aimed at creating bio-fuels. The goal of CARS is to provide industry with a sustainable, affordable way to deal with their greenhouse gas emissions.”

In Australia, scientists at the University of Queensland are developing a technique for obtaining hydrogen from micro-algae. Micro-algae grow in a two stage process. In essence, they use sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen and then combine the hydrogen and oxygen with carbon dioxide to form new growth. However, they need sulphur for the second stage of the process.  If the amount of available sulphur is restricted, they are unable to form new growth and the hydrogen is released.

According to Peter Isdale, Chief Executive Officer Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland, algae ponds covering an area of 33 square kilometres could produce enough hydrogen to supply all of Queensland projected energy needs for the year 2020. “That’s an area about the size of the city of Mt Isa. But in fact it does work out that at the efficiency level that we project, that hydrogen will be produced, that such a small area of ponds would actually produce the energy that you’d need.”