The 10-foot-tall cylinders glow neon yellow and orange, looking like something out of a futuristic dance club. They're actually an experiment with global implications — an effort to see how well algae can wipe out pollution belched by power plants.
The Howard County startup running these bioreactors hasn't hit on an entirely new idea. The U.S. Department of Energy started funding projects related to algae and power plants at least 35 years ago, but the focus largely has been on growing algae for fuel.
HY-TEKBio's aim is emissions reduction, an area getting increasing interest from both companies and countries that see potential in algae. HY-TEK's leaders say algae products — such as biofuel, pharmaceutical ingredients and nutritional supplements — would be secondary, a way to help make the main goal cost-effective.
It's an endeavor full of pitfalls. But HY-TEK's motto sums up the potential boon: "Clean energy from fossil fuels."
The company is deep into a pilot project at an energy-producing wastewater treatment plant just outside Baltimore, and officials say the results look good.
"We're really close to commercialization," said Robert M. Mroz, the four-year-old company's CEO. "By next year, we'll have a revenue stream."
The unassuming green goop that drives pond owners crazy might seem an unlikely hero in the fight against greenhouse gases, which the Environmental Protection Agency says trap heat and contribute to climate change. Algae's appeal is that these plantlike organisms can clean the atmosphere just by existing. They use carbon dioxide — the greenhouse gas CO¿ — to reproduce and also can break down nitrogen dioxide, a smog ingredient emitted by many power plants, absorbing the nitrogen while releasing the oxygen.
Getting algae to wipe out pollution in a cost-effective way from, say, a coal-fired power plant is where the real challenge lies.
"The reason that we don't have algae ponds next to all our power plants is that the devil's in the details," said Andres Clarens, who researches carbon management as an assistant professor with the University of Virginia's civil and environmental engineering department.
It comes down to cost and logistics, he said. Ponds take up a lot of land. Bioreactors, tanks used as an alternative to ponds for growing algae, are pricey. And though the EPA is working on new carbon-dioxide rules for power plants, there's currently no requirement for existing facilities to reduce emissions, which means operators aren't clamoring to spend millions on it.
HY-TEK's plan to entice early adopters is to pay participating power plants back within seven to 10 years through the sale of oxygen, omega-3 fatty acids and other algae products. Mroz said his research suggests there's plenty of demand for those products, plus room to grow into markets like the paint industry, which can use algae as a thickener but generally opts for palm oil because it's more available.
Clarens isn't sure the market is big enough. People don't consume algae products like nutritional supplements in the same quantities as they consume energy, he said, and that's a supply and demand risk. Build lots of emissions-reducing projects on the assumption that the cost can be borne by selling those products, and you could flood the market — reducing the price you'll get.
As a result, Clarens doubts HY-TEK is onto something big. Algae has potential, he said, but he's seen plenty of companies in this space fail.
"Hopefully these guys are able to make some breakthroughs, but I would approach it with caution," he said.
Bjorn Frogner, entrepreneur in residence at both the Maryland Clean Energy Center and bwtech@UMBC, a university complex that includes business incubators, has followed HY-TEK for about two years now. He knows the pitfalls but really wants HY-TEK to succeed.
"That is kind of the Holy Grail for the power industry, because in this country, about 40 percent of our electricity comes from coal, and coal is the main polluter of CO¿ into the atmosphere," Frogner said. "If you can find a mechanism to [reduce] that cost effectively, that would be very attractive.
"Bob Mroz says he can do that, and I am very skeptical, but gee whiz, I hope he's right and I'm wrong."
Mroz, a retired Federal Communications Commission official who has run his own software firm for years, thinks HY-TEK has made breakthroughs.
He and co-founder Jack French, whose background is in marketing, have chipped away at costs from various angles — lighting, algae food and bioreactor construction. They believe they've got a model that will both work and make money.
As for pollution reduction, the results so far look "very promising," said Ted Atwood, Baltimore's energy office director.
His office is involved in the experiment HY-TEK is running at the city's Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, where bioreactors are bathed in colored light. The project, which kicked off last year, is funded with a $250,000 grant from the federal energy department and about $850,000 in donated equipment and services from U.S. companies enthused about the idea.
HY-TEK has four bioreactors at the plant. That's enough to take in about one-eighth of the flue gas emitted by the electricity-generating engines there, which run on biogas made by waste digesters on site, Atwood said.
The flue gas is injected into the bottom of the bioreactors. As the gas works its way up, the algae breaks nitrogen dioxide into its components and consumes the bad stuff — wiping out the pollutant, HY-TEK says. The algae also eliminates about 85 percent of the carbon dioxide.
That's with 10-foot-tall bioreactors. HY-TEK is about to replace them with a 20-foot-tall design. Mroz said he's confident the extra space will reduce the carbon dioxide to zero.
Atwood said Baltimore decided to try the project after staffers reviewed the plan and thought it compared well with the competition.
"We felt they were doing more to maximize the growth of the algae," he said. "They had better economic potential than some of the others … we knew were out there."
Biofuel to pollution
What got Mroz and French interested in algae five years ago was alternative fuel. French, who pilots ultralight planes, wanted to develop biofuel for that aircraft. But when they looked into it, Mroz said, "we had an epiphany."
"It takes two tons of CO¿ to produce one ton of algae," he said. "We said, 'What are we doing fuel for? This stuff needs to be used in the mitigation of greenhouse gases.'"
They formed HY-TEK Bio in 2009 and teamed up with researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who narrowed down tens of thousands of algae strains in an effort to find ones best suited for the company's purposes.
The winner happened to come from Back River in Baltimore County, right beside the wastewater treatment plant.
"It had never been isolated before, so we got to name it," Mroz said. "That was pretty neat."
(It's now called HTB1, for HY-TEK Bio strain 1. That's the sort of name algae gets.)
One of the company's cost-saving measures is making bioreactors from Mylar strengthened with Kevlar mesh, cheaper than alternatives like acrylic plastic or fiberglass.And they're modulating their colored LED lights — turning them on and off — in a way that they say increases algae growth and decreases energy use.
Next up: skipping fertilizer as food for the algae and extracting nutrients from chicken manure instead. A 16-ounce bottle of Miracle-Gro costs $2 in bulk, Mroz said, compared with less than a penny for the same amount of nutrients from the manure.
Mroz said the company is in talks to construct its algae systems for a small power plant expected to be built in Maryland and a local waste-to-energy operation. HY-TEK is on track to start selling algae products next year, he said.
Mroz said he's also talking to people outside the energy industry about other applications for the bioreactors, such as cleaning air in subways and offices.
For now, though, his company manages on a shoestring budget. None of its 12 workers — the co-founders included — is getting paid. Mroz's Dayton home doubles as headquarters. He and French won grants to cover much of the research, but they've each contributed thousands of dollars.
They keep pushing on, enthused about the possibilities and the level of interest. Mroz said hundreds have visited the Baltimore pilot site, including a group from China.
Kathy Magruder, executive director of the Maryland Clean Energy Center in Annapolis, connected HY-TEK with the University of Maryland and a program that helped fund that research. She said she's glad the company has managed to "navigate the Valley of Death so far" in the tough world of translating intriguing technology into a revenue stream.
"What they're doing is validating their technology works," Magruder said. "They're showing us what's possible."