Nazarbayev University professor’s invention may help address climate change

20 января 2014, 15:22

A couple of decades ago Nazarbayev University Biology Professor Peter Rogers invented a bioreactor that could remove carbon dioxide from the air inside diesel electric submarines and other closed environments.

Now the Montreal-based company he founded, CO2 Solutions, is making news for pursuing a holy grail of energy production: clean coal.

The company, which Peter sold in the late 1990s, is working on a low-cost way to remove carbon dioxide from the emissions of coal-fired power plants. It uses the same carbonic-anhydrase enzyme that Peter used in his submarine bioreactor.

Preliminary tests have been successful.

Widespread application of CO2’s approach could dent climate change. That’s because coal-fired plants account for much of the world’s energy. In the United States the figure is 42 percent, in coal-rich Kazakhstan a whopping 85 percent.

Dr. Peter Rogers invented a cardon-dioxide-removing bioreactor. Photo courtesy of Peter Rogers

Dr. Peter Rogers invented a cardon-dioxide-removing bioreactor. Photo courtesy of Peter Rogers

Nazarbayev University is always looking for innovative researchers like Peter. President Nursultan Nazarbayev told the university’s founders four years ago that the institution needed to become world-class in both teaching and research.

A key reason he wanted research prowess was to take Kazakhstan’s economy to the next level. He and other Kazakhstan leaders are counting on Nazarbayev University playing a pioneering role in creating an innovation-based economy that generates cutting-edge products and creates good-paying jobs.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Dr. Rogers holds the original patent on the bioreactor he invented to take carbon dioxide out of the air in diesel electric submarines.

Nuclear submarines can stay underwater for weeks because they have devices that can continuously extract carbon dioxide, replenishing the crew’s oxygen supply.

Not so with diesel electric submarines, many of which are older than their nuclear counterparts and require daily replenishing of the oxygen that the crews breathe.

Without a device to extract carbon dioxide from its air supply, a diesel sub must surface after just one day, Peter said. With the device, it can stay underwater for up to seven days.

It’s easy to understand why military leaders quickly became interested in outfitting diesel subs with carbon-dioxide-extracting bioreactors.

Peter, who has a Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the University of Michigan in the United States, began working with the carbonic-anhydrase enzyme in 1981.

Photo courtesy of

Carbonic-anhydrase enzyme. Photo courtesy of

The research began at Laval University and the Laval University Hospital Center in Quebec, where Peter taught medical students plus students who were pursuing Ph.D.s.

The challenge was creating a device that could make the removal practical and cost-effective.  America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration experimented with using the enzyme to remove carbon dioxide from spacecraft in the 1960s, but never found a workable approach.

Peter left Laval in 1994 for the Global Engineering Supplies and Services Company, or GESCO.

“In 1998 GESCO got a contract with the Canadian Department of Defense to design and construct a bioreactor specifically for use in diesel submarines,” he said. His research team created the device with the assistance of several university colleagues.

“The original intent was to use a bioreactor in two Canadian submarines,” Peter said. But the potential market for the device was much larger: The world has 700 diesel-powered military and non-military submarines.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

The bioreactor that Peter’s team invented is a column consisting of top, middle and bottom chambers. The bottom chamber holds carbon dioxide and the top chamber water.

Carbon dioxide, water and the carbonic-anhydrase enzyme meet in the middle chamber, creating a reaction that removes carbon dioxide and “produces water and a proton,” Peter said. 

The bioreactor was engineered to work under a variety of conditions – for example, with either fresh or salt water, he said.

Peter founded EnviroBioTech, which would evolve into CO2 Solutions, in 1997 to pursue commercial applications of the bioreactor. The U.S. government awarded the company a patent on the bioreactor in 2003.

CO2 Solutions continues to make technical advances in the bioreactor, Peter said.

It’s also broadened its focus from removing carbon dioxide from submarines to removing it from coal-fired power plants and big greenhouse-gas-emitting factories.

 “It has attracted major investors” because environmental problems such as a surge in the carbon dioxide in the air “require a biological solution,” Peter said.

Peter was thrilled when the New York Times’ ClimateWire blog and other news agencies carried a story a few months ago about CO2 Solutions’ innovative enzyme-based approach to cleaning coal. The reports gave the company a huge boost in credibility.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Because oil, gas, coal and minerals dominate Kazakhstan’s economy, this country could be a major market for a carbon-dioxide-cleaning bioreactor, Peter said.

It could be used to scrub carbon dioxide out of oil, gas and coal, while producing a valuable byproduct – bicarbonate, which has many industrial uses worldwide.

Peter said he'd be delighted to be a liaison between Nazarbayev University and natural-resource companies in Kazakhstan that are  interested in potential applications of the CO2 bioreactor.

He said he’d also like to do research at the university on “engineering the enzyme to perform under adverse conditions – such as high heat and contaminant conditions.”

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