Researchers built AI technology that uses algae to fight climate change, and they’re planning on releasing the design so anyone can build one
Dec 16, 2019, 4:39 PM
Algae are thriving in waters in record numbers thanks to rising temperatures, and are creating dead zones where a lack of oxygen suffocates fish and other marine life below.
But like plants, algae absorb carbon dioxide to grow.
Researchers are betting this ancient microorganism could combat global warming by drawing out greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.
Hypergiant, an AI company, has developed a bioreactor that uses algae to capture carbon dioxide. Afterward, the algae is harvested to be turned into animal feed or as an ingredient in consumer products.
Watch the video above, part of the AI.Revolution series, to learn more.
There are only a few ingredients needed for algae to take over: carbon dioxide, light, and water.
The ancient microorganism is thriving thanks to record heat waves and fertilizers washed away into nearby waters. And that’s bad news for pretty much everything else.
But what if a fourth ingredient – artificial intelligence – could transform the gooey sludge from a growing pest into a tool to fight climate change?
A team of researchers at the AI technology company Hypergiant sees algae as a weapon that can be harnessed for our benefit.
They recently built an AI-powered machine, the EOS bioreactor, that takes advantage of algae’s ability to capture carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. They say that by optimizing the growing environment for algae, their bioreactor can draw as much carbon dioxide out of the air as an acre of trees.
It’s one example of the carbon-capturing technology scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
So far, no one has been able to prove such a project can be done economically and at scale. But although the EOS bioreactor is only about the size of a refrigerator, Hypergiant claims it can do just that.
As the researchers explained, the machine harnesses the natural process of photosynthesis to filter emissions and capture carbon. Inside, glass tubes bubble with water and algae that are grown in artificial light. The AI monitors and regulates the algae’s growth.
The EOS bioreactor is completely powered by AI, according to Hypergiant’s research and development director Daniel Haab.
“Our goal is to make it so that no one needs to monitor or maintain this machine when it’s out in the field,” he said.
After the reactor has done its job capturing carbon dioxide, the algae can be harvested and extracted into a dry film.
The dried algae can then be mixed into animal feed or fertilizer, or can be used as an ingredient in a growing array of consumer products, such as moisturizer and nutritional supplements.
“You can do a lot of things with it and you can grow it literally anywhere,” Haab said.
In recent years, steel factories and coal-burning power plants have installed algae-based technology to capture greenhouse gases before they are released into the atmosphere. Hypergiant’s innovation adds a layer of intelligence to the chemical process.
The company did not comment on how many bioreactors would be required to make a measurable impact on the climate or whether it will be commercially viable.
Still, the CEO says the company is on a mission.
“‘Tomorrowing today,’ our tagline, is about delivering the future that we were promised that we’ve read about, that we’ve heard politicians talk about,” Hypergiant CEO Ben Lamm said. “Delivering on that future that isn’t just aspirational but actually should be here.”
The idea is to bring a build-it-yourself model to the masses.
Haab hopes this DIY model will be done by releasing an open-source plan. He said Hypergiant is aiming to create a “connected grid of bioreactors that are all learning from each other, feeding each other information.”
Although the researchers’ goal is ambitious, one scientist said we’re still a long way away from a long-term climate solution.
“In my opinion, this sort of approach is not going to sequester carbon at a rate anywhere near high enough to counteract climate change,” said Kevin Flynn, a marine biologist at Swansea University in Wales.
Hypergiant’s climate adviser Noam Bar-Zemer acknowledges there aren’t “silver bullets” for the massive issue of climate change.
“Problems this size get solved when innovators from around the world can take what they built, can bring those ideas together, and stitch those ideas into a tapestry of solutions that together, collectively, is big enough to meet the challenge,” Bar-Zemer said.
So while a technological solution for carbon capture remains an elusive holy grail, these researchers hope to prove that artificial intelligence can help crack the code. Lamm is hopeful for the future, but said he still wishes people were more focused on the “benefits that society could bring, versus the ‘we’re all going to be dead in 50 years.'”
“Because who wants to wake up and do anything, if that’s the case?” he said.