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.

Element - - Clean Technology - By Andy Ken­wor­thy

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.”

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