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From big polluters to biomass producers: Students re‑imagine marine vessels

- April 16, 2018

Back row, left-to-right: DSU President Amina Abawajy, Dal President Richard Florizone, World's Challenge Challenge winners Meredith Fraser, Brett Lindenfield and Eric Dunn. Front row, left to right: Dal Dean of Graduate Studies Marty Leonard, Dal Provost and Vice-President Academic Carolyn Watters. (Provided photo)
Back row, left-to-right: DSU President Amina Abawajy, Dal President Richard Florizone, World's Challenge Challenge winners Meredith Fraser, Brett Lindenfield and Eric Dunn. Front row, left to right: Dal Dean of Graduate Studies Marty Leonard, Dal Provost and Vice-President Academic Carolyn Watters. (Provided photo)

Marine vessels are big polluters, but a team of Dal students has devised a way to reduce those emissions while creating a marketable new by-product in the process.

Now, they’re getting ready to pitch their idea at a global competition this spring that will see them face off against teams from around the world for a $30,000 prize to put their plan into action.

Eric Dunn, Meredith Fraser, and Brett Lindenfield first joined forces earlier this year during Dal’s World’s Challenge Challenge competition, emerging as the winners with their Algae for Carbon Capture project.

Dal is one of the universities from around the world invited to send a team to compete in the international World’s Challenge Challenge finals at Western University in London, Ont. The competition, now in its second year, challenges teams to present projects addressing at least one of 17 Global Goals for sustainable development set out in 2015 by the United Nations.

“If our project were implemented on the majority of active vessels around the world, the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from this sector would be very significant,” says Lindenfield, a Biochemistry and Molecular Biology major, describing the potential impact of their project.

Using algae to reduce emissions


To operationalize their idea, Lindenfield, Dunn (Biology) and Fraser (Marine Biology and Sustainability) developed a plan to build a photobioreactor, a large device that uses light to cultivate microorganisms such as algae. The system would use these photosynthetic algae to reduce harmful emissions, including carbon dioxide, while simultaneously growing algae-based biomass suitable for use in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, food nutrients, fertilizers and more.

“Although there are great ideas for a green future, a lot of them don't consider services or products they can simultaneously provide,” says Dunn.

The team’s algae-growth technology would consist of a system of translucent tubes filled with water and sensors and filters to ensure optimal growth conditions, all while using light energy from the sun and nutrients from vessel exhaust. The result would be a system capable of growing at least three kilograms of biomass over 10 days, which would equate to six kilograms of carbon dioxide sequestered.

“At Dal, we know that our students have truly excellent ideas for helping our planet and all who inhabit it,” says Fiona Black, associate vice-president academic at Dal.

Honing the message


But refining those unique ideas and condensing them into five-minute presentations for a team of judges — including Dal President Richard Florizone, Dal Provost and Vice-President Academic Carolyn Watters, Dean of Graduate Studies Marty Leonard, and DSU President Amina Abawajy — can be a challenge.

To prep for the Dal finals, teams had the chance to meet with Jenny Baechler, a senior instructor in the Faculty of Management who is also currently director of experiential learning in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Fraser, from the Algae for Carbon Capture team, says the whole experience has been a great way to apply, in a real-world context, concepts and ideas she’d engaged with in class.

“This experience has helped me learn both the importance and challenge of building interdisciplinary solutions,” she says, noting that her team’s individual academic strengths all helped in developing their project to the point that they won the finals.

Looking ahead


Next steps, should they win the global competition in June — as last year’s Dal team did — include the research and development of their photobioreactor system, isolating and optimizing a strain of micro-algae for use in their preliminary systems, and reserving a spot on a research vessel for early pilot testing of their system.

“We would like to thank all of the people who have helped us along the way,” says Lindenfield. “We could not have accomplished what we have so far if not for their contributions.”


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