Algo: Converting toxic algae into a sustainable source of energy

Algo is a large-scale device designed to collect excess algae from any body of water and take advantage of this resource by converting it to usable biomass.

Launched as part of McGill’s Bicentennial celebrations, impact200 is a sustainability challenge aimed at turning student ideas into concrete projects to make the world a better, and greener, place. The objective is to address, in particular, the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals designed to protect the planet, improve lives and end poverty.

The response from McGill students was impressive: 44 teams of between three and six members submitted proposals following the original call for entries in late 2020. Of those, 10 were named as finalists this past April.

The projects focus on alleviating environmental and social problems in myriad ways. These initiatives include everything from converting harmful excess algal bloom into biomass and transforming solid waste into nutrition; to purifying contaminated water and developing a solar mobile refrigerator for clinics in remote regions. The common thread tying all impact200 finalists together is to make the world a better place.

Each finalist received funding and expert mentors to help develop a proof-of-concept during the summer. The impact200 initiative would not have been possible without the generous financial support of the Sustainability Projects Fund, the Faculty of Science, and the Faculty of Arts.

Leading up to the announcement of the winning project in December, we will feature each of the 10 finalists in the Reporter.

Today, we speak with Hasan Sagheer (U3 Materials Engineering, Biomedical engineering minor) and Dahyun (Anne) Kyung (U3 Bioengineering), members of the Algo team that is looking to convert toxic algal blooms into usable biomass.

Could you describe Algo project?

Dahyun (Anne) Kyung: Algo is a large-scale device meant to be implemented in bodies of water affected by algal blooms. These algal blooms can be toxic and detrimental to aquatic ecosystems and oftentimes grow as a result of agricultural or industrial runoff. Algo works by pumping in algae from algal blooms and converting it into usable biomass through a series of internal processes.

How many people are on the team?

AK: While there are officially six people who signed up for impact200 as the Algo team and currently five members actively working on the project, there have been close to twenty people who have contributed to this project since its beginnings in the fall of 2020.

The six impact200 team members are:

  • Team Leads: Kimia Shafighi (M1 Neuroscience), Dahyun (Anne) Kyung (U3 Bioengineering)
  • Biomass Leads: Shagun Sachar (U3 Bioengineering), Justin de Vries (U4 Bioengineering)
  • Sensor Lead: Victoria Pittard (Computer Science and Biology, Graduated BSc 2021)
  • Design Lead: Hasan Sagheer (U3 Materials Engineering, Biomedical engineering minor)

Which of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals does Algo address?

Hasan Sagheer: This project addresses six of the sustainable development goals, which are:

  • Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities
  • Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy
  • Goal 14: Life below water
  • Goal 12: Responsible consumption and production
  • Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation
  • Goal 13: Climate action

What was the genesis of the Algo initiative?

HS: We actually had quite a different idea for what we wanted Algo to be at the beginning. We were tackling the issue of air pollution, using algae as a means to filter out harmful contaminants from the air.

During the research phase we found that algae could turn into biomass, which could then be turned into a number of different products like biofuel or fertilizer. At that stage, we weren’t expecting to implement these processes because it was out of the scope of our previous project idea.

However, we later realized after coming up with the first iteration of a prototype that the project we were working on had previously been done before and was now commercially available. Learning from this experience and using our previous idea as inspiration for our current project, we aimed to come up with a device that could convert the algae into usable biofuel that could be sold to consumers.

Could you tell us a bit about the mentorship phase of the impact200 competition?

HS: The mentorship phase has been incredible. Our mentor Pratyusha Chennupati (or B for short) has been with us through the toughest periods of the project. When the second wave of COVID hit and everything was shut down again, our access to lab space was limited and the project was essentially prevented from moving forward in any capacity. During these times B was always there to motivate us to continue forward and to make sure we didn’t lose hope in our vision for Algo to expand and potentially become a start-up that could bring real and lasting change.

Without B, I think I wouldn’t be as committed to this project as I am now. After every meeting with her, all of us leave with a newfound sense of inspiration and a clearer idea of how we want to overcome our problems. At this point, I hope that even after impact200 has come to an end I can still reach out to B for her guidance on problems. I can honestly say that she is more than just a mentor to us she is a someone we can count on and go to in times of need.

What are the biggest challenges the team has faced and how did you overcome them?

AK: I think that one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced is with lab space and access. This was especially difficult due to COVID-19, and to be honest, there’s not much that you can do in the face of a global pandemic. While we have to admit that this problem has been rather discouraging and has caused a lot of delays in our schedule, I think that my teammates’ drive and their vision for Algo to go beyond the scope of a design team project has been a big motivator for me

Biggest takeaways?

AK: One takeaway for me, especially as an engineering student, was learning more about the entrepreneurship side of things. A lot of the focus for design team projects is on the product itself how it works, how it can be tested, and how to optimize its function. Through impact200 I’ve been able to see how important it is to pitch and promote your project, and how we can get people invested in the work we’re doing.

Where does the initiative stand at present?

HS: Currently, we are working extensively in the lab to do the necessary tests to produce our proof of concept. We are growing our algae cultures and preparing to run experiments on each of the processes that we expect the algae to go through in Algo. Prototypes for the sensors have been built.

Watch the videos of all the Finalists of the impact200 Bicentennial Student Sustainability Challenge and vote for your favourite project. Winners will be announced on December 2. Vote here.

To learn more about the Algo initiative watch the short video below:

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concerned taxpayer
concerned taxpayer
25 days ago

US taxpayers have spent over $2.5 billion on algae for fuels for 80 years with dismal results. According to the DOE Algae Biomass Program/BETO nothing has been proven outside the lab and researchers never met their milestones. One reason why algae research grants are at an all time low.

Daniel Guitton; McGill Prof at NEURO
Daniel Guitton; McGill Prof at NEURO
25 days ago

Many Quebec lakes are being overrun and potentially destroyed by an “aggressive” parasite aquatic plant : myriophylllum spiculum. It would be a great contribution if these plants could be removed from our lakes and converted to ecologically useful biomass.

Maria P
Maria P
24 days ago

Myriophyllum spicatum

Misbah Fehmi
Misbah Fehmi
5 days ago

Excellent concept. All the best to Team Algo.

Nitin Gopalani
Nitin Gopalani
5 days ago

Brilliant initiative.

Sanjay Kumar Mishra
Sanjay Kumar Mishra
5 days ago

Brilliant effort. Wish you the best of results in your initiative and endeavor !!

Andrea Crizzle
Andrea Crizzle
5 days ago

well done Shagun & team.

Sabeen Faruqi
Sabeen Faruqi
5 days ago

Awesome project

Sabeen Faruqi
Sabeen Faruqi
5 days ago

Super project

Jaiprakash Pulasaria
Jaiprakash Pulasaria
5 days ago

Excellent Project

Sushma Aryal
Sushma Aryal
5 days ago

All the best Team algo.

Regards,
Sweets

Rajil Nagrecha
Rajil Nagrecha
4 days ago

Good one keep it up

Ajit Mukundan
Ajit Mukundan
4 days ago

Great initiative….taking this forward will definitely impact our environment positively..wish you guys all the best in your endeavour and many congrats for innovative out of the box thinking

Ibrahim Oladimeji
Ibrahim Oladimeji
4 days ago

I love the concept of converting algae into useful biomass. Nice one

Oweh Charles
Oweh Charles
4 days ago

Awesome project.i am particularly intrigued by the fact that it’s end product is aimed at generating energy which emits zero co2. Kudos to the team.

Vinit Kerkar
Vinit Kerkar
4 days ago

Good work to the Shagun and the team.