NASA shows off new algae farming technique for making biofuel

Apr 16, 2012 by Bob Yirka report
Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae (OMEGA) is an innovative method to grow algae, clean wastewater, capture carbon dioxide and ultimately produce biofuel. Using treated sewage as a growth medium, OMEGA would not compete with agriculture for water, fertilizer or land. NASA’s OMEGA system consists of large flexible plastic tubes, called photobioreactors. Floating in seawater, the photobioreactors contain freshwater algae growing in wastewater. These algae are among the fastest growing plants on Earth.

(Phys.org) -- NASA is clearly looking far into the future for a way to handle both human waste and a need for fuel on either long space flights or when attempting to colonize another planet. To that end, they’ve assigned life support engineer Jonathan Trent the task of coming up with a way to use algae to solve both problems at once. His solution is to use plastic bags floating in seawater as small bioreactors, containing wastewater, sunlight and carbon dioxide to grow algae that can be used as a means to create biofuel.

The whole thing is called Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae or more concisely, OMEGA, and will be demonstrated to reporters at one of San Francisco’s public utilities water pollution control plants tomorrow and is the culmination of $10 million worth of research.

The idea is more practical than revolutionary says Trent, who has spoken to reporters already about the project. The idea was to figure out a way to create an algae farm that could be placed close to a waste treatment facility, without taking up a bunch of land. That’s when he came up with idea of using floating in the ocean. Conventional systems use large pools of water set up on dry land. In the test facility, each bag is four meters long and has been seeded with wastewater and carbon dioxide. Sunlight makes its way through the clear plastic as the bags float on seawater, which not only serves as a place for the bags to reside, but also help keep the algae cool, which must be done mechanically in other facilities. The algae eat the wastewater and grow until the bag is filled, at which point it is removed to be used for making biofuel.

Reports thus far show that algae farms set up in this manner would be capable of producing over two and a half million gallons of fuel annually in an area just under two square miles.

Wastewater with oil-producing algae circulate through photobioreactors (green tubes) floating in a seawater tank at the San Francisco Southeast Wastewater Treatment Plant, where NASA has set up one of its OMEGA research facilities.

Trent says with a real farm, the come could from nearby power plants, helping to reduce the carbon footprint of the whole process. Not helping, on the other hand, is that the whole scheme is based on petroleum based plastic bags, which in addition to their inherent carbon footprint would also have to be disposed of once a year as they degrade in saltwater. Trent suggests that California farmer’s could use them as field cover instead of the large tarps they currently use. He also says that if one or more of the bags should break, like say in a storm, there is no worry as the would die in the seawater and the wastewater released would be the same as wastewater facilities such as those in San Francisco already pump into the bay.

At this point it seems clear that a new type of plastic will need to be developed for the project to become viable, especially if it is to be ported to space exploration applications at some point; perhaps one made from biodegradable material so that it could be grown along the way, and then could be used as fertilizer afterwards.

Explore further: Tarantula toxin is used to report on electrical activity in live cells

More information: Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae (OMEGA) project: www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/rese… rch/OMEGA/index.html

Related Stories

Opposition to plastic grocery bags grows

Jul 28, 2005

Opposition to the use of plastic grocery bags is increasing across the United State and most particularly in California, the Sacramento Bee reports.

Algae biofuels: the wave of the future

Apr 03, 2012

Researchers at Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech have assembled the draft genome of a marine algae sequence to aid scientists across the US in a project that aims to discover the best algae species for producing ...

Recommended for you

Reading a biological clock in the dark

11 hours ago

Our species' waking and sleeping cycles – shaped in millions of years of evolution – have been turned upside down within a single century with the advent of electric lighting and airplanes. As a result, ...

Scientists see how plants optimize their repair

Oct 20, 2014

Researchers led by a Washington State University biologist have found the optimal mechanism by which plants heal the botanical equivalent of a bad sunburn. Their work, published in the Proceedings of the Na ...

User comments : 10

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

tadchem
1 / 5 (3) Apr 16, 2012
It's not a 'technique' until you actually DO it!
islatas
not rated yet Apr 16, 2012
You may want to refer to the second photo in the article where the apparatus is shown installed in a seawater test tank.
Roland
3 / 5 (2) Apr 16, 2012
In the real ocean environment this will be shredded in no time. Let's dump more plastic in the ocean! It's almost a good idea.
NotParker
1 / 5 (6) Apr 16, 2012
Green wind mills slaughter eagles.

Green Algae farms pollute the ocean.
Newbeak
not rated yet Apr 17, 2012

This was tried by a company called Valcent Technologies,but they dropped it quietly a few years ago. Their system used large plastic tubes through which algae flowed,and the tubes were bathed in desert sunlight. It seems the plastic tube idea is still popular.One good thing about using these tubes is tha t if you using a special high performance algae,they are protected from contamination from wilda algae.
Newbeak
not rated yet Apr 17, 2012
sorry for the typos,I'm typying this on a tablet!
DrRock
not rated yet Apr 18, 2012
Instead of looking for a new bag material - bags are really en vogue in the industry at the moment - it might be nice for the "local" earth application to develop a sort of tank system with the ability to get out the outgrown algae under controlled conditions and feed in new starting material.

For the given examples this could be a structural addition for waste producing facilities instead of the let it float approach. If that really is a "green" project developers should be in constant touch with relaxed environmental experts, though.

Would it technically be possible to get the CO2 from the air instead of feeding it from power plants? And, there are a lot of bacteria with intersting diets which could be used to reduce polution of the oceans given a steady technique - don't know if there was something on that here already - Newbie!
kaasinees
0 / 5 (21) Apr 18, 2012
sheesh i wish i could work at nasa doing projects like these.
aironeous
1 / 5 (2) Apr 19, 2012
I have a better idea. We have a "for profit" asteroid mining colony on the outer moon of Mars that we have tugged to a closer orbit (after tugging phobos into an impact with Mars) and this mining colony along with rail gunning a portion of the mining tailings at Mars in metal spheres also trades carbon rods from their mining and nitrogen with them. the colonists use the carbon rods to do the magenegas process and turn the water ice that theri nuclear charged rovers are collecting mixed with human waste into CO and H2 and very minors other gases. The CO and trace is vented to the atmosphere in the crater because it will not freeze out and the H2 is kept for fuel cell operation indoors for portable devices. Solar concentrators are used to melt the regolith and collect all that oxygen. A traveling wave reactor is used as the power source that the colony charges up all their batteries from until they can finish building out alternative energy sources and an underground network of structure
aironeous
1 / 5 (1) Apr 19, 2012
I have a better idea. We have a "for profit" asteroid mining colony on the outer moon of Mars that we have tugged to a closer orbit (after tugging Phobos into an impact with Mars) and this mining colony along with rail gunning a portion of the mining tailings at Mars in metal spheres also trades carbon rods and nitrogen with the Mars colonists. The colonists use the carbon rods to do the magenegas process and turn the water ice that their nuclear charged rovers are collecting mixed with human waste into CO and H2 and minor other gases. The CO and trace is vented to the atmosphere in the crater because it will not freeze out and the H2 is kept for fuel cell operation indoors for portable devices. Solar concentrators are used to melt the regolith and collect all that oxygen. A traveling wave reactor is used as the power source that the colony charges up all their batteries from until they can finish building out alternative energy sources and an underground network of structures.