Running on algae: an Energy Conversation

image copyright NASA

Every time I see an image of oil gushing out into the Atlantic Ocean, or hear a conversation about our need to find alternative fuel sources, I think of the promise of biofuels. Like any other technology, there are pluses and minuses, but when I hear someone dismissing biofuels as requiring more energy to create than they produce, I have a ready response.

Last November, I attended a seminar entitled “Can Algae Replace Petroleum as a Clean, Low Carbon, Homegrown Fuel for our Military and More?” And my takeaway from this highly informative seminar was that it is not only possible to produce biofuels in an energy-efficient manner, but it can also be done in a way that alleviates another huge problem — water pollution due to waste-water runoff.

The seminar speakers included Jonathan Trent, Ph.D. of NASA, Chris Tindal of the Navy, William Harrison of the Air Force, and Roy Minson of SAIC (a government contractor). All of these experts agreed that the US’s continuing dependence on the quickly dwindling supply of foreign oil is an issue of national security. In addition, petroleum is an extremely expensive and inefficient way to power the vehicles necessary for the military. In addition, the military leaders said that they find it very disturbing that they send men to battle to obtain oil, which has to be shipped (using oil) to the US to be refined (which uses oil), then shipped back to the Middle East to fuel the military vehicles.

In the seminar, there were discussions of the pros and cons of various biofuels, including soybeans, sunflowers, canola, jatropha, palm and microalgae. Most of these crops produce relatively small yields compared to the amount of water and electricity needed to produce them. The exception is microalgae, which requires much less water and power, and produces a much higher yield of usable fuel (per acre/per year, soy beans produce about 50 gallons of oil, canola produces about 160 gallons, palm produces about 600 gallons, and algae can produce at least 2,000 gallons). However, cultivating microalgae on land has several challenges. For example, they take up a lot of space, require large amounts of fresh water (for the open-air type) and can be expensive to build and maintain (closed type).

But Jonathan Trent and others have been working on method that overcomes all of these issues, plus has some added environmental benefits. The program, the Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae (OMEGA), entails growing biofuel in plastic bags (membranes) of sewage floating in the sea. These particular bags are based on technology used to recycle astronauts’ wastewater. They allow fresh water and oxygen to exit while keeping saltwater out, and the algae and sewage in.

Here’s how it works. The OMEGA bags are filled with sewage and algae (the sewage can be found in abundance where it is currently being dumped into the ocean off the shores of all our coastline cities), and are floated on the surface of the ocean (so no need to pump in water). The bags collect solar energy (thus, no need for electricity), which causes the algae to produce oxygen through photosynthesis. The algae feed off of the sewage, and in the process they produce oil.

NASA estimates that, using the OMEGA method, 10 acres of ocean could produce 21 billion gallons of biofuel each year!

If you are interested in learning more about OMEGA and other biofuel technology, you can access the transcript and PowerPoint slides from this conversation, which are available in the Energy Conversations archives along with all the other conversations from the past four years.

In 2006, the Department of Defense started sponsoring this monthly evening seminar series called: “Energy: A Conversation About Our National Addiction.” The first Conversation featured former Director of the C.I.A., Jim Woolsey. And the DoD continues to support this effort: “The Energy Conversation is more than information sharing among peers and energy industry leaders; it is a playing field in the energy-climate world struggle, ” says Brian J. Lally, P.E., Facility Energy Director, The Pentagon.

The Energy Conversation includes representatives from: Dept of State • Dept of Treasury • Dept of Defense • Dept of the Interior • Dept of Agriculture • Dept of Commerce • Dept of Health and Human Services • Dept of Transportation • Dept of Energy • Dept of Education • Dept of Veterans Affairs (VA) • Dept of Homeland Security • U.S. House of Representatives • U.S. Senate • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) • Office of Science and Technology Policy • Council on Environmental Quality • Office of the Secretary of Defense • Army • Navy • Marine Corps • Air Force • Coast Guard • Director of National Intelligence • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) • Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) • General Services Administration • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) • National Science Foundation (NSF) • National Academy of Sciences • Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) • Energy Star • Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

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