June 15, 2016

Postdoc's biofuels startup offers new source of clean renewable energy

Christine Sharp and Marc Strous' Solar Biocells uses microorganisms in capture and conversion of carbon dioxide
Christine Sharp is a postdoctoral scholar with the Energy Bioengineering Group under the supervision of Marc Strous. They co-founded the startup Solar Biocells which captures and converts carbon dioxide into biomass for the production of renewable, clean energy.

Christine Sharp is a postdoctoral scholar with the Energy Bioengineering Group

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

In elementary school, Christine Sharp recalls wanting to know if there was a difference in the amount of bacteria between probiotic yogurt and normal yogurt.

"So we bought a bacterial cell stain from the store, borrowed a microscope from school and I spent hours looking at these tiny cells under the microscope,” says the postdoctoral scholar with the Energy Bioengineering Group under Marc Strous.

Sharp has since transformed her lifelong sense of curiosity, and interest in the capabilities of some of nature’s smallest organisms, into a highly innovative bioengineering startup company that, literally and figuratively, generates a new source of "green" energy.

A new concept for creating clean energy using microorganisms

Sharp and Strous co-founded the startup Solar Biocells which uses an entirely new concept for the capture and conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) into biomass in a innovation for the production of renewable, clean energy.

Solar Biocells uses micro-organisms, like algae or cyanobacteria, which naturally process energy from sunlight and take up CO2 from the atmosphere to grow biomass. The biomass, in turn, can be converted to methane, a liquid fuel or biomass pellets. The micro-organisms can be cultivated in closed systems, called bioreactors, on land that is unsuitable for other uses, like agriculture.

While organisms like the ones Sharp uses have previously been proven effective in other methods, the Solar Biocells method is highly cost-effective, scalable, and sustainable.

Innovative technology allows for low-cost, highly scalable production

“We threw out the handbook of how to generate algal biomass and developed a combination of novel engineering and microbial ecology methods to reduce operational and investment costs by more than tenfold,” says Sharp.

At the same time, the technology used by Solar Biocells yields the highest productivity ever reported in the field’s scientific literature.

Solar Biocells achieved these results using three innovations: the use of high pH and alkalinity to promote CO2 absorption rate and to uncouple absorption and uptake; the use of biofilms instead of suspended cells to cut downstream processing costs, and the use of naturally occurring microorganisms instead of a single pre-selected algal strain, which increases their system’s overall efficiency.

The high pH sources they used are soda lakes located in British Columbia’s Cariboo Plateau.

Mentorship and support at university fosters entrepreneurship

While Sharp was initially skeptical about taking this innovation to the next phase, Strous — who Sharp says is “definitely” a mentor — encouraged her to create a business out of her day-to-day research.

Sharp says that the culture of encouraging and actively helping the university’s entrepreneurial faculty and staff members to bring their research and ideas to wider audiences was an integral part of helping her get started.

“Our project could be classified as ‘high-risk, high-reward’ and the university has been instrumental in allowing us to take a chance on doing something different," she says. "The university and Innovate Calgary also provide great support to budding entrepreneurs."

Sharp uses bioreactors like these to cultivate phototrophic microorganisms in-lab.

Sharp uses bioreactors like these to cultivate phototrophic microorganisms in-lab.

Encouraging learning about clean energy through campus and community events

Supporting community learning about clean energy is another part of Solar Biocells’ work. Sharp has not forgotten how she first became interested in science while in elementary school, and also uses her company’s work as an educational model for elementary- and secondary school-aged students.

She and her teammates at Solar Biocells, which include an in-house team of microbiologists, engineers, chemists and fabricators, have visited classrooms and even taken part in two Telus Spark Energy Series Adults Only Night, the Green Fuels and Here Comes the Sun nights.

Sharp is also involved in, and hosts, regular on-campus events, including a Women in Science discussion group that meets every Tuesday at noon, and Science in the Pub, the Graduate Student Speaker Series .

Inaugural mixer event brings together innovators from across campus

On Monday, June 20, Sharp is co-organizing the inaugural Innovation Mixer, a networking, innovation showcase and panel discussion on bringing the campus innovation community together. She will also showcase Solar Biocells and participate in the panel discussion. 

The event is an opportunity for students, post-docs and faculty innovators to connect, share ideas, and get involved with like-minded changemakers behind the rise of start-up culture at the University of Calgary.

When it comes to entrepreneurship, Sharp has the following advice for anyone who may have great ideas but are apprehensive about turning those into a business.

“Try!" she says. "The entrepreneurial path is definitely intimidating but by pushing yourself to try something new, you may discover things you didn’t know about yourself.”

The University of Calgary Postdoctoral Program attracts the best and brightest emerging scholars with world-class professional training that prepares them to pursue rewarding careers in industry, academia, government, and non-governmental organizations. Through the unique Eyes High Postdoctoral Scholars Competition, the university has invested in more than 185 postdocs, bringing the total number of postdoctoral scholars on campus to over 500, ranking the program among the top five in Canada.

Located in the heart of Canada's energy sector, the University of Calgary has built a reputation as a global leader in energy research and innovation. With a focus on our low-carbon future, diverse teams are also assessing the effects of energy-related processes while harnessing unconventional hydrocarbon resources through the Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow research strategy.