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Pond Technologies: Using algae to gobble up GHG emissions

  • Name: Steven Martin and Emidio Di Pietro
  • Residence: Markham, Ontario

Using microscopic algae, Pond CEO Steven Martin believes he has the key to unlocking a low-carbon, energy-rich future.

Markham, Ontario-based Pond Technologies Inc. is developing technologies involving algae that could be integral to visions of a low-carbon future. “Our technologies will help deliver sustainability, assuage environmental concerns, offer food security and so much more,” says CEO, Steven Martin.

That’s a bold statement. However, Martin believes Pond is on its way through innovation toward accomplishing that goal.

In 2007, Pond Technologies began researching how to produce biomass from microscopic forms of algae (microalgae). Biomass is organic matter that can be transformed into fuels, such as bio-oil and biodiesel. Fast forward a decade, and the company has now developed a unique, proprietary process using high-intensity red light that allows the algae to multiply at a much faster pace than previously. At the same time, and importantly, the fast-reproducing algae consume large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions—in particular, carbon dioxide (CO2).

Pond Technologies CEO Steven Martin (right) and VP of Engineering Emidio Di Pietro (left) work on using algae to eliminate CO2 emissions at their lab in Markham, Ontario. Photo: Nation Wong.

The next innovation came in tying algae growth to industrial stack emissions. Pond has developed a process where algae are grown in photobioreactors, inside which the algae are combined with light to trigger photosynthesis, and are fed waste CO2 emissions directly from industrial plants. Additionally, waste heat and water from the plants are used to help catalyze and support growth.

The end result is that the algae are used to reduce GHG emissions, while at the same time creating clean fuels used for cars and airplanes and to heat homes. As well, once the fuels are extracted from the algae, the leftover bio-matter can be used for a variety of products, including fertilizers and animal feed.

“On a scale of one to 10, our innovation is an 11,” states Martin. The technology is a potential game changer in helping reduce CO2 output from major industrial emitters including steel, cement and energy plants.

For every unit of algae grown, two units of CO2 are consumed, explains Martin. “Through our process as many as four generations of algae could be produced in a day. To put that into perspective, a tablespoon of algae could result in 1,000 tonnes of the organism in as little as 10 days.” That’s equivalent to 30 full shipping containers filled with algae, and twice that mass in consumed GHG emissions.

Emidio Di Pietro, Pond Technologies VP of Engineering, says he gets goose bumps when looking at all the answers the company is providing. “Every point of pollution has a solution,” he says. “We no longer look at it as dirty and damaging. Instead we see food for our algae. There are so many uses for the resulting biomass: clean fuel, fertilizer, fish and animal feed and even paint. We have yet to learn all that can be done with it and the benefits and rewards that will continue to accrue.”

“I started the company for the right reasons: I want to leave a better world for my son. But innovation is a slog; it’s hard work; and I admit it would have been easier to quit than carry on.”

Steven Martin

While working on the challenge of tying algae production to industrial emissions, Martin and his team made another discovery: untreated stack emissions were better for the algae than treated stack emissions. This may sound small, but it’s a really big deal, according to Martin. “Cleaning emissions to deliver only CO2 requires expensive technology. To our delight, untreated emissions work even better in growing the algae than pure CO2,” he says. “That makes ultimate sense; after all algae evolved on a planet that was essentially on fire. The trace elements in the fossil fuels that power the world today were once algae. It’s all very auspicious.”

One of the biggest challenges, however, is communicating the full potential of the technology, notes Di Pietro. As with any new innovation, it is disruptive, expensive and the adoption curve complicated and time consuming. “We work hard to educate everyone — from governments and investors to industries looking for solutions — on how they can benefit.”

The government and the oil and natural gas sector are already embracing the potential. Pond Technologies, Canadian Natural, the National Research Council and St. Marys cement plant are partners in the Algal Carbon Conversion Project. The project is testing the use of an algae bio-refinery to rapidly recycle carbon dioxide emissions from an industrial facility. A pilot-scale biorefinery is currently being tested at St. Marys Cement plant in Ontario, and a stage two deployment is planned for an oil sands operation. Results of this project will be shared throughout the oil sands industry as part of COSIA (Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance).

If the technology can be successfully scaled to commercial size, Canadian Natural envisions a reduction of over 1.5 million tonnes of C02 emissions from its oil sands operations — the equivalent of taking 300,000 vehicles off the road.

Pond Technologies has also teamed with the City of Markham and Markham District Energy in Ontario, as well as the National Research Council, to compete in the $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. The Carbon XPRIZE is a global competition that provides incentives to accelerate innovation that will take CO2 from a liability to an asset. The team has already reached the semi-final stage alongside teams from China, India, Switzerland, Scotland and the U.S.

“Each group is spending a lot of money to forward the agenda to get us to the promised land of sustainability,” says Martin. “Our goal is to show that money can be made by repurposing CO2 and moving it from a pollutant to a usable resource.”

How close is Pond Technologies to a real-world application of its technology? “Very close,” states Martin. “We have an application in with the Government of Ontario to co-fund a commercial-scale algal conversion plant with Hamilton-based steelmaker, Stelco. This is a great opportunity for the government to de-risk technology by helping to fund it through the front end.” It’s also a great opportunity for Stelco to reduce its carbon footprint.

Martin hopes his work, and that of his team of 14 engineers and a biologist galvanizes others to look for solutions to today’s global challenges. “I started the company for the right reasons — I want to leave a better world for my son. But innovation is a slog; it’s hard work; and I admit it would have been easier to quit than carry on,” he says. But he and his team have persisted. “Doing this work, and working with others that care for the algae like it’s their children is very powerful and I’m very proud of that. We are doing something that no one else has.”

Family inspires Martin: particularly his son, as well as his father — a serial entrepreneur who was instrumental in helping start the company — and his sister who helps him through the tough stuff. Martin also acknowledges the commitment and dedication of his co-workers. “I couldn’t get through a single day without the people I work with,” he says.

Adds Di Pietro, “There is purpose here. The work is exciting, dynamic, fun and challenging. We are going to create an environment that we can be proud of. This era will be remembered not for industrialization, but for reparation and sustainability. I will look back on this time and say I did that. I made a difference.”