In May, the National Research Council (NRC), Ontario-based Pond Biofuels and Alberta-based Canadian Natural Resources Limited announced the construction of a $19 million facility that will use algae grown on industrial flue gas to create value-added products, from bio-oil to fertilizer.

The algae facility being constructed at Canadian Natural’s Primrose South site will include­ 100,000 litre cultivation vessels­ shown in this conceptual diagram­. When completed, they will be the largest algal bioreactors­ ever built.

The algae will be grown on emissions from natural gas burners, used to produce the steam that’s injected underground during in-situ bitumen extraction. “Unlike other waste streams, the carbon dioxide in flue gas is dilute and hard to capture using current technologies,” says Joy Romero, vice-president of technology development at Canadian Natural. “But algae grow well on flue gas, because there’s nitrogen and sulfur, which they also consume.”

Preliminary calculations show that each tonne of algal biomass will take in 1.8 tonnes of CO2 and will yield 0.3 tonnes of bio-oil similar to naptha: this can be fed directly into Canadian Natural’s existing upgraders or used to transport bitumen. The other 0.7 tonnes will be used as fertilizer or animal feed.

The project will leverage NRC’s decades-long experience in growing algae for fish feed and other applications. “We have a collection of strains gathered from various industrial locations in Canada and we’ve selected the ones that grow well on simulated flue gases,” says Aleks Patrzykat, executive director of Algal Carbon Conversion with the NRC. For its part, Pond Biofuels will provide the bioreactor technology needed to keep algae healthy and happy, which they’ve developed by growing algae on flue gas from a cement plant in St. Marys, Ont. over the past five years. “We have basically drilled a hole in the smokestack, taken everything that comes out and grown algae on it for a protracted period of time,” says Steven Martin, CEO and chief scientist at Pond Biofuels.

The new facility, which will be more than 10 times the size of Pond’s demonstration plant, is set to be commissioned in early 2014, a timeline Martin calls “aggressive but achievable.” If successful, it could go a long way toward combating algae’s reputation as a fringe technology. “If a company such as Canadian Natural deploys this technology commercially, that will do all the convincing,” says Patrzykat.