In 2013, microbiologist Marc Strous set out to develop a highly sought-after technology that could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create an eco-friendly energy source.
Strous — who studies geomicrobiology at the U of C — and his team drew inspiration from an International Panel on Climate Change report which highlighted the urgency for carbon-capture technology to combat the climate crisis. The team’s research was focused on a type of blue-green algae called cyanobacteria – a phylum of bacteria that obtain energy through photosynthesis.
“We’re not reducing our emissions fast enough. We have to do more, we actually have to remove the CO₂ from the air,” said Strous.
Carbon-negative technology blueprint
According to Strous, the main goal of the project was to create an energy source from the algae that could be burned as an eco-friendly fuel through carbon-negative technology.
The algae would need to be grown at a very high pH level environment, and it would remove carbon dioxide from the air as part of its growing process.
“Carbon-negative technologies do not exist [yet],” said Strous.
“They’re future tech, we want to have them, but we don’t currently have them.”
Current carbon-capture technologies are designed to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it. But carbon-negative technologies are different because they remove more CO₂ from the air than they produce.
Investing in green energy
While Alberta has historically relied on non-renewable energy sources, change toward a greener energy sector is already on the way.
“Alberta recognizes that carbon-negative and carbon-capture technologies play a key role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said a spokesperson from Alberta’s Ministry of Energy in an email to the Calgary Journal.
Currently, the Alberta government has invested nearly $2-billion to fund carbon-capture utilization, storage, and other related projects.
According to the Ministry of Energy, “Funding to date has supported a wide range of technologies, including carbon-capture, carbon conversion and bioenergy carbon-capture.”
While most of this funding will be used for projects, $305 million is reserved in the budget for the Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction, or TIER program.
The funding allocated to the program will support future projects that are not currently in development while the other $1.49 billion in funding is supporting active projects, including two commercial-scale projects.
Currently, 231 projects have been funded by the TIER program, with 23 oil and gas projects currently active and four oil-sands innovation projects active.
These projects being funded by the Government of Alberta could potentially have a significant impact on our energy sector and may even produce a carbon-negative energy source.
Redirecting research and making room for improvements
While Strous’s work with cyanobacteria proved it could be used as a carbon-negative technology and green energy, he explained the eight-year project was ultimately unsuccessful.
“It’s not feasible to do this with algae, because the amount of land you would need is so big, that you’re compromising a lot of other human activity and destroying huge amounts of nature,” said Strous.
Strous used the eight-year research to pivot his work to focus on cyanobacteria as a food source because of the algae’s high protein count.
Strous hopes it can make a difference in climate emissions by providing a sustainable alternative to protein sources that cause a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions to manufacture.
More research projects with this technology are ongoing as the urgency for these technologies has only increased since the IPCC’s original pitch.
“They can’t push the need to change further to the next generation, which is a problem, because we don’t even know if that’s going to be possible.”