From alkaline soda lakes to bioenergy

Aligned with UCalgary’s Energy Research Strategy’s DEEP theme “Discover New Sources”, Grand Challenge “Toward low Carbon Energy”, and the Faculty of Science Grand Challenges “Understanding Earth’s Evolving Systems” and “Energy in Transition”, and the GRI Theme 3 Grand Challenge “CO2 conversion”, and Alberta Research and Innovation Framework (ARIF) aims “Economic Diversification and Job Creation” and “Environmental Stewardship and Climate Leadership”.

Collaborations with Schulich School of Engineering: Joule Bergerson, Hector De la Hoz Siegler, Josephine Hill, Jinguang Hu, Sathish Ponnurangam. Department of Chemistry: Justin MacCallum, Samira Siahrostami, Jeffrey Van Humbeck, Gregory Welch. Department of Geoscience: Rachel Lauer, Benjamin Tutolo. Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology: Dirk de Beer

Soda lakes are among the most alkaline aquatic environments on earth and among the most productive ecosystems known. High pH, high salinity, and extensive free radical activity lead to extreme conditions for survival of aquatic life. At the same time, a virtually endless supply of bicarbonate enables active photosynthesis by microbial mats, complex multi-layered microbial communities, similar to ancient stromatolites or thrombolites. Soda lakes are distributed all over the world and Canada is home to some of those.

Recently, our team compared microbial mats from Canadian soda lakes, on the Cariboo Plateau, BC, to Asian soda lakes on the Kulunda steppe, Mongolia. Metagenomics analyses showed that these distant ecosystems share a common ecological blueprint, a similar microbial community. Apparently, nature has come up with a single solution for this ecosystem – a community structure that is both productive and robust in an extreme and dynamic environment. Our aim is to use the common ecological blueprint to realize a technically and economically feasible bio-process, powered by the sun, for direct-air-capture and conversion of CO2 into bio-energy.

This year, we have been able to take the research to pilot-scale. The installation features >300 m of transparent pipes and a total volume of almost 1,000 L. It was seeded with the Canadian soda lake microbiome and operated successfully for 140 days in the Alberta outdoor environment, demonstrating both robustness and productivity. Making use of natural processes occurring in soda lake sediments, we also discovered how to bio-refine the produced biomass into methane and phyocyanin, a valuable natural product, directly contributing to Canada’s green energy portfolio and economy.

In conclusion, this fundamental and curiosity driven research in biogeochemistry and ecology is producing outcomes with high societal relevance. This has propelled the program into a critical stage. Our recently established spin off company, Synergia Biotech was selected into the Creative Destruction Lab, a Canada-wide program that provides business mentorship and access to investors. Scale up and commercialization are becoming a tangible possibility.

soda Lake Sampling
pilot plant
soda Lake Sampling
soda Lake Sampling