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Algae: the key to turning pollution into power

Steve Martin, CEO and Chief Scientist of Pond Biofuels.

Pond Biofuels Matrix Bioreactor System.

Martin, analyzing a microscopic view of an algal culture.

Technology that powers Pond Biofuels.

Pond Biofuels LED fatigue testing fixture.

Fas flow meters at bioreactor gas inlets.

Algal cultures growing in flasks in the Pond Biofuels sterile culture room.

It’s 1941. The United States has left the Depression behind, its industries are growing, and it has yet to enter the war raging in Europe. Henry Ford – godfather of the modern automobile and inventor of the modern assembly line – is looking to unveil an entirely new sort of machine: a car made entirely out of bio-plastic, powered by ethanol. The perfect synthesis of the factory and the field.
"Agriculture needs a wider and steadier market; industrial workers need steadier jobs," he had mused, nearly a decade earlier. "Can each be made to supply what the other needs? I think so. The link between is Chemistry."
Eight decades later, we've come closer to realizing Ford's dream. Every time you drive -- or get on a bus, or mow a lawn -- you're using a machine that is powered, in part, by corn. In Canada, as in the United States, a certain percentage of all gasoline must be ethanol, which is pure alcohol, refined from corn. This 'blending mandate' reduces each vehicle's greenhouse gas emissions and makes fuel less expensive, while providing grain farmers with a steady demand for their product.
But not all is well. The American grain crop of 2012 was wracked by extreme drought. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 80 per cent of arable land experienced a lack of rainfall, and as of September, the USDA had designated over 2,000 counties as natural disaster zones. It was the most severe drought in over 25 years, with crop prices -- and costs for ethanol and biodiesel plants -- correspondingly high. Plants were shutting down, concerns about global food security were mounting, and some -- including the United Nations -- were calling for an end to the ethanol mandate.
It's an unenviable position for any policymaker -- the environment, or lower-cost food? The needs of today, or the needs of tomorrow?
One Toronto company thinks it has the answer: we can have both. We just have to think a little greener.
Pond Biofuels is tucked in Scarborough's West Hill neighbourhood. The area isn’t what you’d think of as a hub of innovation, but behind one of its many shopping plazas, in a squat, brown-brick building, Pond has been working on a way to turn pollution into clean energy since 2007.
Where Ford saw a the symbiosis of agriculture and industry as a way to make industry literally "renewable," Pond sees a way to take sustainability further, by taking the waste products of industry -- such as greenhouse gas emissions -- and turning them into algae. This algae can then be further refined: the 'algal lipids' (or fats) can be refined into biodiesel, and the remainder, according to Pond, can be used as a "renewable coal substitute."
As Pond’s president Steve Martin puts it, "We take noxious smokestack gas and turn it --quite literally -- green."
The whole process -- waste-to-energy -- has a certain elegance to it, and Martin, like any entrepreneur, is optimistic about the model's future. His product meets all the relevant standards for biodiesel -- so it is functionally equivalent to the conventional fuel, made from soybeans. And although Ontario doesn’t have a provincial biodiesel blending mandate, there is a much bigger market out there.
"Aviation fuel derived from algae oil has been certified for use in both military and commercial jets," he says, adding further that there are a number of U.S. states that have renewable fuel requirements. And there’s nothing wrong with the government stepping in to help reduce emissions.
That said, although government support for clean technology helps, Martin is not about to rely on it. When asked about various policy options for promoting clean technology -- like a carbon tax, or a cap and trade regime -- he says, "Carbon credits are certainly part of the revenue mix … however, the business model is not dependent upon carbon tax, cap and trade, or other carbon pricing schemes. [It’s] the icing on the cake."
Pond is still a small company with about 20 employees, but the technology's potential for real impact is best understood when you look at its partners.
St. Marys Cement, which has locations throughout Southwestern Ontario, produces building aggregates for usage all over Northeastern North America. Carbon dioxide is a significant by-product of their industrial process, an unfortunate side-effect of the process used to create things we consume.
But what if that carbon wasn't considered a waste product, but a commodity that could be marketed?
Last year St. Marys has entered into a partnership with Pond, allowing them to construct a carbon-to-algae conversion plant as an additional 'wing' of their cement factory in St. Marys, Ontario. It was made possible through numerous investments, including a $908,280 FedDev funding grant. It's less of a vendor relationship and more of a partnership with Pond Biofuels providing the knowledge and expertise, and St. Marys providing the premises and the chance to get hands-on experience testing the idea against reality.
Murray Thomson, a professor of engineering at the University of Toronto, thinks that this is a long-term bet. Although investment in research and innovation can significantly reduce the cost, he doesn't see biofuels as being viable, near-term, without legislative support like a blending mandate or a carbon tax. But this support is necessary. 
"Reducing [greenhouse gases] in a significant way will require government legislation … without this, people will continue using the cheaper option, which is fossil fuels," he says.
It's an approach St. Marys agrees with. Converting carbon emissions into tons of algae is one thing, but finding a market for that algae is something else entirely, and that requires investment. 
Martin Vroegh, environment manager at St. Marys, put it best when he spoke to the Toronto Star in 2010: "The amount of exposure to carbon pricing we face as an industry is very high. If we want to be around tomorrow we have to be sustainable. This project helps us achieve that."
St. Marys is willing to invest, because once that market is developed, they will have turned an unfortunate byproduct of industry into a valuable input that can help them -- and other Canadian manufacturers -- grow and survive.
Michael O'Shaughnessy is a writer and communications consultant in Toronto.
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