In 2005, as part of a five-year research effort, the company was screening algae samples, taken from marine environments across the Atlantic provinces of Canada, for specific nutraceutical ingredients. That is when, in one of hundreds of filmy, green test tubes and flasks, it uncovered a single-celled microorganism that produces substantial quantities of triacylglycerol oil — a base for biofuel.
“It was like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Ian Lucas, Ocean Nutrition Canada’s executive vice president of innovation and strategy. “We got extremely lucky. This certainly isn’t our core business, but we’ve been told by experts that this is the most efficient organism for the production of oil identified in the world to date.”
Dozens of companies and academic laboratories are pursuing the objective Ocean Nutrition Canada did not know it had — to cultivate algae, the foundation of the marine food chain, as a source of green energy.
But Ocean Nutrition Canada’s prolific grower, experts say, appears capable of producing oil at a rate 60 times greater than other types of algae being used for the generation of biofuels.
In view of its discovery, the company will lead a four-year consortium, formed over the past months and funded by the federal not-for-profit foundation Sustainable Development Technology Canada, to develop its proprietary organism into a commercial-scale producer of biofuels.
Canada, with its long harsh winter and short summer, would hardly seem to be the ideal place to breed algae for biofuel.
“Canada doesn’t seem like the best place to be growing algae, but Canadian expertise can be applied to programs all over the world,” said Dr. John Cullen of Dalhousie University’s Oceanography Department in Halifax. Indeed, recent federal investments have placed Canada among the pioneering nations housing publicly funded research programs aimed at the sustainable production of energy from algae biomass.
And Canada’s severe environment could actually turn out to be an advantage. It is widely recognized that growing algae might more easily be done in an equatorial region where the temperature is consistently warm and daylight varies little from 12 hours a day.
“But there is no reason not to develop the technologies in a northern climate and deploy them more equatorially,” said Stephen O’Leary, a research officer at the National Research Council of Canada’s Institute for Marine Biosciences, also based in Halifax.
Capable of converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into lipids and oils, photosynthetic algae can typically generate 10 to 20 times more fuel per acre than agricultural commodities like corn, used to make ethanol.
Moreover, algae do not require arable land and so need not compete with food crops for growth space. And as voracious consumers of carbon dioxide, photosynthetic algae have the potential to abate greenhouse gas emissions.
Interest in the field of algal biofuels is escalating both in Canada’s public and private sectors.
The consortium, led by Ocean Nutrition, “is finally publicizing the fact that Canada has been doing a lot of work in this space for some time and is almost at the leadership position,” said Rick Whittaker, vice president, investments and chief technology officer at Sustainable Development Technology Canada. The project has attracted multinational partners, including the military contractor Lockheed Martin and UOP, a unit of Honeywell that supplies technologies to the petroleum industry and is here focused on converting the algal oil into an alterative jet fuel.
“It’s a big deal for Eastern Canada and a big deal for the country in general,” Mr. Whittaker said. “Because of this particular algae strain and our ability to process it, this can reach a global scale.”
Ocean Nutrition is now capable of growing meaningful amounts of the strain — named ONC T18 B — and keeps a stockpile in cryogenic reserve. One of the species’s draws is that it produces oil by converting reduced organic compounds, not by conventional photosynthesis. Direct sunlight is not always easy to come by in Canada, and heating indoor ponds could end up consuming more energy than it produces.
“Growing algae on a pond in Canada means that it’s an ice hockey rink in the winter time,” Mr. Whittaker said. “We’re interested in producing these things all year round without an issue.”
The National Research Council’s Institute for Marine Biosciences is contributing expertise as a member of the consortium. “Our role in the project is to help ONC push the biology of their organism so that it becomes the fastest-growing, best oil-producing organism it can be,” Dr. O’Leary said. The aim, he said, is to enhance the physical conditions under which the algae grow.
Meanwhile, the biosciences institute is involved in its own algal biofuels initiative, encompassed by the National Bioproducts Program, a joint venture with Agriculture and Agrifood Canada and Natural Resources Canada. Begun in 2008 — though researchers at the biosciences institute have been working on algal biotechnology for more than half a century — the project’s aim is photosynthetic fuel production on a large scale, mostly from algae growing in eastern Canada. A 15,000-liter, or 4,000-gallon, cultivation pilot plant at the NRC’s Marine Research Station in Ketch Harbor, outside Halifax, celebrated its grand opening in June.
One of the initiative’s distinguishing features is its focus on collecting local strains of algae from specific Canadian and American sites. Organisms that are indigenous and therefore acclimatized to an area naturally lend themselves to cultivation there. And this approach mitigates the risk of importing foreign species that might upset the environmental balance if unintentionally released.
“A strategy in this type of research has been to go to already established algal libraries and withdraw species known to be fast growers and good lipid producers with little consideration for where in the world they were isolated,” Dr. O’Leary said. “There hasn’t been enough focus on developing native strains for native deployment.”
In assessing how best to grow algae for biofuel, NRC has joined forces with the U.S. Department of Energy in a collaboration formed under the auspices of the U.S.-Canada Clean Energy Dialogue. It has also teamed up with the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.
Other partners include a number of Canadian companies that have recently entered the algal biofuels arena, like Carbon2Algae Solutions, which ultimately plans to operate algae photobioreactors that will capture carbon dioxide from facilities like the oil sands in Alberta and use it to help local algae strains thrive.
At the biosciences institute, more than 100 species of algae have been collected and studied; about 40 of these have been brought into cultivation.
Dr. O’Leary estimates that commercialization — producing large volumes of fuel from algae to feed into Canada’s network of distribution pipelines — is at least a decade away. But locating an algal cultivation facility at a source of industrial carbon dioxide, to produce biomass for local use, could be commercially viable within five years, he says.
As for Canada’s advantage in this technological race, Mr. Whittaker says the ideal algae strain would be one that consumes a cheap feedstock, produces high levels of oil and is robust. Algae will grow even in the most uninviting of environments, and the harsh Canadian climate produces rugged plants.
“The thing that would suggest that Canada is at a disadvantage,” Mr. Whittaker said, “is actually the advantage that allows all this to happen.”
Or, as Dr. O’Leary put it: “If it’ll work here, it’ll work anywhere.”