The power of pond slime
A Nelson-based company has figured out how to create energy from slime and clean up water in the process.
Freshwater and fuel, two of the most pressing issues on the planet. Nelson-based Aquaflow is working on both simultaneously. The company has developed ways of improving the purification process in municipal wastewater ponds by removing unwanted algae.
The really clever bit is that they then take the algae and turn it into more than 100 chemical compounds. This includes material that can be processed into a range of fuels for vehicles and aircraft, as well as chemicals for a range of other commercial applications, including health, hygiene and textiles.
And Aquaflow can create this ‘green crude’ in 30 minutes, compared to what the Earth naturally does to similar material over millions of years to create fossil fuels. The irony is that a lot of the algae has been formed in the first place by overstimulation from fossil fuel-based fertilisers being washed off farmland, so this is also a great way to reclaim the resources lost in this way.
Aquaflow’s challenge has been taking this ‘Green Crude’ and finding the ways and means to refine it into all these different products ready for sale. Set up six years ago by entrepreneurs Barrie Leay, Vicki Buck and Nick Gerritsen, the team has become a real driving force in New Zealand’s move towards a cleaner, more efficient future.
Aquaflow’s private owners have so far poured several million dollars into their endeavour. But the scale of the challenges, and the potential benefits, are so huge that Aquaflow is now on the hunt for hundreds of millions to create a full-scale production plant and start employing as many people as possible.
Nick Gerritsen says capital is always an issue, but the company is now confident of raising money as its various refinery projects begin. He envisages the success of Aquaflow as part of tha special rolr New Zealand can play in the world’s clean tech future.
“Clean tech is a mega-trend. And in similar sense to what NZ has carved out globally, whether it’s giving women the vote, going anti-nuclear or our anti-apartheid stance: we can do the same in this sector. New Zealand could provide clean tech solutions to a scale and value way beyond the relative size of our country.
“The nature of our economy has meant that in many areas we have been doing it anyway: we’ve had to. We have been building capability and practical solutions in applied engineering, biotechnology, energy, sustainable farming methods and technologies. “the great thing is that we are also in alignment with large capital flows hunting for the next generation of solutions. It is all about doing good, and making money from that.”
The company is making steady progress. In its latest deal Aquaflow has teamed up with Texas-based CRI Catalyst Company, a member of the giant petrochemical group Royal Dutch/shell. CRI specialises in converting algae and timber into fuels to blend renewable gasoline, jet and diesel fuel. Together the two companies now plan to set up a pilot plant, most likely in the US. This is in addition to an existing deal with another US company Honeywell’s UOP on a United States Department of Energy cooperative agreement project to demonstrate technology to capture carbon dioxide and cultivate algae for use in biofuel and energy.
Gerritsen says: “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that this could become unbelievably large. But to get there it is one foot in front of the other, steady as she goes, and we try really hard to keep the thinking fresh and practical.”