Published September 6, 2019
Algae may be found in oceans and lakes, but some scientists are hoping that the next place you’ll see these organisms is a coal-fired power plant.
That’s because algae, which mostly reside in aquatic habitats, consume carbon dioxide to conduct photosynthesis. If the organisms grow in dense enough concentrations in a controlled setting, they could conceivably be used to capture carbon dioxide from power plants that burn coal or natural gas.
The end result? A new way to reduce pollution and fight climate change.
To advance this science, biotech startup Helios-NRG is testing technologies for algae cultivation and carbon capture in a greenhouse on the North Campus.
On a recent summer morning, three tanks of microalgae in the building shined a bright, jewel green as sunlight beamed through the water. In just a few days, however, the contents of the containers had darkened as the number of microorganisms inside exploded.
And that’s what Helios-NRG wants to see: Its algal research, largely funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), strives to grow dense populations of algae quickly.
The objective is to produce 35 grams of algae per square meter of area per day and to capture more than 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from a concentrated source. The company has made significant progress toward those goals, using special photobioreactors and inventing new processes to achieve high algal growth and CO2 capture rates — simultaneously, says Benjamin Lam, Helios-NRG senior research engineer.
Once the technology has been refined, Helios-NRG will have the chance to pilot it at the National Carbon Capture Center, a DOE-sponsored research facility in Alabama.
“Fossil fuel power plants are dominant sources of carbon dioxide production,” says Ravi Prasad, president of Helios-NRG. “This is a global problem with severe effects, and more and more people are realizing that we need to do something about it. By developing a sustainable biotechnology approach for carbon capture, our company is working to address the challenge of climate change.”
“We are committed to the environment,” says Lam, who received his master’s degree in chemical and biological engineering from UB. “We produce algae strains with desirable traits through breeding. We don’t use genetic modification to add genes that you would not normally find in algae because it’s so difficult to predict what could happen if genetically modified algae gets into the environment.”
Harvested algae can be used in products such as biofuel, animal feed and nutraceuticals. To dewater the algae, Helios-NRG first produces a concentrated algae slurry, as pictured. Photo: Douglas Levere
Helios-NRG senior research engineer Benjamin Lam takes measurements that will help him determine how much carbon dioxide microalgae are capturing. Photo: Douglas Levere
A sample of Helios-NRG’s dried, powdered algae biomass. This material has been refined through the company’s specialized process. The dried biomass is a precursor to products such as biofuel, animal feed and nutraceuticals. Photo: Douglas Levere
Members of the Helios-NRG team, from left to right: research associate Pradeep Yerramsetty; chief scientist Fred Harrington; senior research engineer Benjamin Lam; President Ravi Prasad; and scientist Derek Koscinski. Photo: Douglas Levere
Helios-NRG was a client of the UB Technology Incubator for seven years, receiving such services as mentoring and support from UB’s Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships office, which greatly aided the company’s growth.
The startup graduated from the incubator in July 2019, but continues to be located at UB, with labs and offices on the South Campus. In addition, Helios-NRG has been leasing space in the Dorsheimer Laboratory/Greenhouse on the North Campus since April, and James Berry, professor of biological sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, has been a valuable resource in answering questions about the facility as the startup has set up operations. (Berry has an office and laboratory in the greenhouse complex.)
Helios-NRG also has strong relationships with other members of the UB community. The company has hired alumni, provided internships to several chemical and biological engineering students, and funded collaborative research.
In one project, Haiqing Lin, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is helping Helios-NRG develop efficient, long-lasting membranes for inexpensively separating algae and water.
Once harvested, microalgae can be used in biofuel, feed for animals and nutraceuticals for humans, says scientist Derek Koscinski, who leads Helios-NRG’s dewatering efforts.
“Our goal is to not just carbon capture, but to also take our algae and turn it into something that people want,” says Fred Harrington, Helios-NRG chief scientist. “By producing commercial products, we will create revenue, which will bring down the cost of carbon capture. This is important because large-scale implementation of carbon capture technology will require it to be economically feasible.”
Converting carbon-consuming algae into commercial products also has environmental benefits, Prasad says. He notes that many carbon capture technologies are designed to simply separate carbon dioxide from flue gas, creating a new problem to solve: what to do with all that CO2. Burying captured carbon dioxide underground is one solution, but sequestration is expensive and carries unknown risks, he says.
In addition to UB and the National Carbon Capture Center, partners on Helios-NRG’s algae research program include the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota, Northwestern University, and Membrane Technology and Research Inc.