A bid to clean the air with algae

Howard Co. startup is trying to prove that its algae bioreactors are an answer to greenhouse-gas pollution

  • Robert M. Mroz, CEO of Hy-Tek Bio, explains the experimental algae scrubbing tanks, using new technology to produce clean energy from fossil fuels, which are in the backrground.
Robert M. Mroz, CEO of Hy-Tek Bio, explains the experimental… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
August 04, 2013|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

The 10-foot-tall cylinders glow neon yellow and orange, looking like something out of a futuristic dance club. They're actually an experiment with global implications — an effort to see how well algae can wipe out pollution belched by power plants.

The Howard County startup running these bioreactors hasn't hit on an entirely new idea. The U.S. Department of Energy started funding projects related to algae and power plants at least 35 years ago, but the focus largely has been on growing algae for fuel.

HY-TEK Bio's aim is emissions reduction, an area getting increasing interest from both companies and countries that see potential in algae. HY-TEK's leaders say algae products — such as biofuel, pharmaceutical ingredients and nutritional supplements — would be secondary, a way to help make the main goal cost-effective.

It's an endeavor full of pitfalls. But HY-TEK's motto sums up the potential boon: "Clean energy from fossil fuels."

The company is deep into a pilot project at an energy-producing wastewater treatment plant just outside Baltimore, and officials say the results look good.

"We're really close to commercialization," said Robert M. Mroz, the four-year-old company's CEO. "By next year, we'll have a revenue stream."

The unassuming green goop that drives pond owners crazy might seem an unlikely hero in the fight against greenhouse gases, which the Environmental Protection Agency says trap heat and contribute to climate change. Algae's appeal is that these plantlike organisms can clean the atmosphere just by existing. They use carbon dioxide — the greenhouse gas CO¿ — to reproduce and also can break down nitrogen dioxide, a smog ingredient emitted by many power plants, absorbing the nitrogen while releasing the oxygen.

Getting algae to wipe out pollution in a cost-effective way from, say, a coal-fired power plant is where the real challenge lies.

"The reason that we don't have algae ponds next to all our power plants is that the devil's in the details," said Andres Clarens, who researches carbon management as an assistant professor with the University of Virginia's civil and environmental engineering department.

It comes down to cost and logistics, he said. Ponds take up a lot of land. Bioreactors, tanks used as an alternative to ponds for growing algae, are pricey. And though the EPA is working on new carbon-dioxide rules for power plants, there's currently no requirement for existing facilities to reduce emissions, which means operators aren't clamoring to spend millions on it.

HY-TEK's plan to entice early adopters is to pay participating power plants back within seven to 10 years through the sale of oxygen, omega-3 fatty acids and other algae products. Mroz said his research suggests there's plenty of demand for those products, plus room to grow into markets like the paint industry, which can use algae as a thickener but generally opts for palm oil because it's more available.

Clarens isn't sure the market is big enough. People don't consume algae products like nutritional supplements in the same quantities as they consume energy, he said, and that's a supply and demand risk. Build lots of emissions-reducing projects on the assumption that the cost can be borne by selling those products, and you could flood the market — reducing the price you'll get.

As a result, Clarens doubts HY-TEK is onto something big. Algae has potential, he said, but he's seen plenty of companies in this space fail.

"Hopefully these guys are able to make some breakthroughs, but I would approach it with caution," he said.

Bjorn Frogner, entrepreneur in residence at both the Maryland Clean Energy Center and bwtech@UMBC, a university complex that includes business incubators, has followed HY-TEK for about two years now. He knows the pitfalls but really wants HY-TEK to succeed.

"That is kind of the Holy Grail for the power industry, because in this country, about 40 percent of our electricity comes from coal, and coal is the main polluter of CO¿ into the atmosphere," Frogner said. "If you can find a mechanism to [reduce] that cost effectively, that would be very attractive.

"Bob Mroz says he can do that, and I am very skeptical, but gee whiz, I hope he's right and I'm wrong."

'Very promising'

Mroz, a retired Federal Communications Commission official who has run his own software firm for years, thinks HY-TEK has made breakthroughs.

He and co-founder Jack French, whose background is in marketing, have chipped away at costs from various angles — lighting, algae food and bioreactor construction. They believe they've got a model that will both work and make money.

As for pollution reduction, the results so far look "very promising," said Ted Atwood, Baltimore's energy office director.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.