Mather Carscallen thinks the future of fuel is one organism: algae. As the founder, president and CEO of SabrTech, Carscallen leads a team creating technology that will convert algae into biofuel. Algae, says Carscallen, is often considered the holy grail because it can be used in so many ways, including as a fuel, food, livestock feed, fertilizer and for water detoxification.
SabrTech started out researching algae fuel for use in aviation but quickly expanded its scope. “Even though our focus in the beginning was very aviation oriented, our long-term vision was we need to revolutionize how people approach and solve industrial problems,” he says. “We thought how we can work with the natural ecosystem, get the benefits from it, integrate ourselves into the entire system, rather than sit on the sides and pick away at its foundation until it collapses.” Halifax Magazine talked with Carscallen about SabrTech, algae and how the city is changing its tune about fuel.
What is it about algae that’s so interesting?
Its ability to do so many things. It’s so cool because it’s the foundation of everything. People say it’s one of the oldest organisms on Earth. It was around billions of years ago. I didn’t have a fascination with algae when I first started. I literally looked at it under a microscope one day and thought, “This stuff is cool.” If you actually look at it under a microscope and the ecosystem it forms, it actually looks like a completely new world. It’s like a city. They are mobile. They are swimming around. If there are bacteria in the culture, they are swimming around. It was both personally fascinating and had a huge ability for impact.
When do you think we will see algae fuels used on a global scale?
Globally, probably 10 to 20 years. And I only say that much just because the flat out time needed to build the infrastructure and production capacity. The aviation industry uses 70 billion gallons of fuel a year. This is not a small amount of fuel. Mind you, I would love to be surprised by people’s ability to get things done quickly and pool resources together. But I think regardless if it’s our technology or not, if it’s proven to be viable it would still take a long time to raise that capital and get those production sites going. But…10 years is not that far away.
Do you think it will take awhile for people to get their head around putting algae in their car’s fuel tank?
I don’t think people consciously think about it. Sure, you see a lot of the pumps are five or sometimes 10 per cent ethanol. But it’s a fleeting thought. I think people are starting to become more conscious about it. Green is really hot and sexy right now, whether you are talking wanting to wear recycled clothing or eating locally grown organic food, whatever it is. But people are starting to become a little more nature oriented and more pro, “Hey, we actually need to take care of the planet we live on.” But at the end of the day they won’t care. If it makes their car go, and it’s at a price that doesn’t bankrupt everybody, people would adopt it, no problem.
What energy or environmental initiatives taking place here inspire you?
CarbonCure with their green concrete, TruLeaf with their vertical farming, Acadian Seaplants is just a wild company. Really cool individuals that I’ve had a chance to chat with in these organizations. For me the biggest thing that blows my mind in this city is the willingness of everybody to help regardless if they are science oriented or not. We have students that are bombarding us right now in a good way, asking for positions. In addition to being inspired by some great start-ups, it’s the people who are just willing to help. It’s a bottom-up and a top-down inspiration that I see in the city.
That’s interesting because we always hear there is the unwillingness to change.
I would agree with that mentality; people are very set in their ways and don’t want to be inconvenienced. But I think there is a new generation of people coming out willing to go out on a limb. You see more young entrepreneurs, whether it’s IT or clean tech or not-for-profits, whatever your field is. I think there is a huge spike in people who don’t want to work 9 to 5 and get a good paycheque. They want to actually want to make a difference.
What do you want people out there to know about your thoughts on energy security and new technologies?
I think people need to realize that whether they are thinking green because they want to save a polar bear or a tree or whether they are thinking green because it’s good for press, at the end of the day, people need to realize that if there is no nature, there is no economy. Our entire society is built off of natural resources. It doesn’t matter if you like trees or polar bears or not. The fact of the matter is if we screw up things, it’s going to bite us in the ass. Nature will just reset itself; we’re the ones who will get spanked.