Using algae to sequester carbon and produce astaxanthin and fertilizer

Algae to sequester carbon - Design and Innovation Day Team

Meghan Cooke, Amelia Dai, Lisa Hochhausen, Cindy Lam, Adam Leung, Siba Saleh, Chris Webster and Veronika Zenova

The challenge

To support their goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, Technical Services Trail, an applied research group from Teck Resources, asked us to develop a theoretical design for an industrial-scale microalgae plant to sequester 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually from a single source. Algae are fast-growing microorganisms that consume carbon dioxide, making them a promising carbon capture technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are a wide range of applications for algae products, from food to biofuel.

Our design solution

One of our first decisions was choosing which end products we would produce from the algae. We chose astaxanthin, which is a pigment that can be used as an antioxidant for preservative purposes. The remaining biomass would be packaged as biofertilizer to minimize waste and maximize profitability.

We developed a process to grow the algae in flat-plate photobioreactors capable of consuming 33,500 kilograms of carbon dioxide over a batch time of 200 hours. This was followed by a series of processes to harvest cells, disrupt cell walls to release the astaxanthin, purify the product, and finally formulate the product as a powder.

We selected the equipment to perform these tasks and designed our plant layout accordingly. Other elements included estimating total capital costs and annual operating costs, as well as projected profit from astaxanthin and fertilizer sales. Finally, we also conducted safety and environmental assessments for the operation.

Early in the project, we realized that it would be incredibly difficult to sequester 100,000 tonnes per year of carbon dioxide using Chlorella vulgaris. We worked through numerous scenarios, and in the end, we designed a process and facility that could result in the biological sequestration of 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Even so, to achieve this, our facility would need to be very large – about the size of six football fields and with a four-storey-tall greenhouse – and would require considerable investment.

What we learned

Early on we decided to rotate the project manager role every two or three weeks. This enabled each of us to gain experience of what it would be like to manage an ongoing engineering project.

Over the course of the project, we learned a lot about carbon capture using a biological process. Even though it was a theoretical project, we were using real data, and the solution we developed is something we are very proud of.

This project also gave us renewed appreciation for the interdisciplinary nature of engineering work, helping us see how chemical and biological engineers collaborate with other engineering disciplines, as well as with other areas, like finance (to determine the economic viability of our process), market analysis (to examine the global demand for our proposed products) and policies (to assess the safety and environmental impact of our facility).

What excited us most

Carbon capture will be an important way forward for all industries in the face of climate change, and it was exciting to learn more about what elements need to be in place to make biological carbon sequestration feasible.

It was also rewarding to synthesize all the knowledge we have gained over the years – from thermodynamics to biological engineering – and bring it all together here.

Finally, this project demonstrates the significant role chemical and biological engineers play in making the environment a better place for all. As engineers working in this field, we can make a difference in renewable energy, pharmaceuticals, the food industry and a wide array of other areas.

Environmental Engineering

Our project’s future

We presented our project to Teck’s environmental technologies team and placed first in the showcase competition among the other capstones sponsored by Teck. We received positive feedback on our work, which sparked a lot of discussion and excitement within their team!

Although this project was not feasible given the boundaries we defined and the choices we made, it was still a valuable exercise and an important step in finding ways to make biological applications of carbon capture more feasible.

We made various recommendations to Teck and our teaching team – it would be great if a future capstone group could build off our work and design a process that might be implemented one day!

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