seeing green

Houston team researching how algae can combat climate change

Venkatesh Balan and his team at UH are researching ways fresh- and salt-water phototropic organisms, or microalge, can sequester carbon from industrial refineries and convert it into useful byproducts. Photo via UH.edu

Researchers at the University of Houston are looking at an alternative way to capture carbon that uses a surprising conduit: algae.

In a newly published article in Green Chemistry, a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Venkatesh Balan, associate professor of engineering technology at UH, details how he and his team are researching ways fresh- and salt-water phototropic organisms, or microalgae, can sequester carbon from industrial refineries and convert it into useful byproducts.

Balan is joined by UH researchers James Pierson and Hasan Husain, Sandeep Kimar from Old Dominion University, Christopher Saffron of Michigan State University, and Vinod Kumar from Cranfield University in the United Kingdom.

According to a release from UH, Balan and research assistant Masha Alian have uncovered how microalgae can produce fungus like lichen and create healthy food products. After microalge captures the carbon, it then converts that CO2 into mass-produced proteins, lipids and carbohydrates, according to the team's research.

“We are coming up with the alternate approach of using algae to fix the CO2 then using the carbon to make bioproducts that are useful to mankind,” Balan said in the release.

The method offers an alternative to other carbon capture options that aim to burry carbon, which is expensive and energy intensive, according to UH.

Balan says this research also has applications in wastewater treatment and the production of food, fertilizers, fuels and chemicals, all of which could lessen the dependency on fossil fuels in the future.

"On your table or in your pantry, you see food products. What’s harder to visualize are the greenhouse gasses emitted by the orchard that grows the fruit, the factory that makes the breakfast cereal, the transportation that brings the cookies to your neighborhood, even your own commute to buy the food," Balan said. "It adds up, but the problem is easy to ignore because we can’t see it. Yet all consumers contribute, in our own way, to the greenhouse effect.”

The UH team is just one of many Houston groups looking at unconventional, although natural ways to combat climate change.

In September, Rice University announced that two researchers were awarded a three-year grant from the Department of Energy for their research into the processes that allow soil to store roughly three times as much carbon as organic matter compared to Earth's atmosphere.

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A View From HETI

The combined technology portfolios will accelerate the introduction of promising early-stage decarbonization technology. Photo via Getty Images

SLB announced its plans to combine its carbon capture business with Norway company, Aker Carbon Capture.

Upon completion of the transaction, which is expected to close by the end of the second quarter of this year, SLB will own 80 percent of the combined business and ACC will own 20 percent.

According to a SLB news release, the combined technology portfolios will accelerate the introduction of promising early-stage decarbonization technology.

“For CCUS to have the expected impact on supporting global net-zero ambitions, it will need to scale up 100-200 times in less than three decades,” Olivier Le Peuch, CEO of SLB, says in the release. “Crucial to this scale-up is the ability to lower capture costs, which often represent as much as 50-70% of the total spend of a CCUS project.

The International Energy Agency estimates that over one gigaton of CO2 every year year will need to be captured by 2030 — a figure that scales up to over six gigatons by 2050.

"We are excited to create this business with ACC to accelerate the deployment of carbon capture technologies that will shift the economics of carbon capture across high-emitting industrial sectors,” Le Peuch continues.

SLB is slated to pay NOK 4.12 billion — around $379.4 million — to own 80 percent of Aker Carbon Capture Holding AS, which owns ACC, per the news release, and SLB may also pay up to NOK 1.36 billion over the next three years, depending on business performance.

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