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The Keystone XL pipeline has some big competition, and it is coming from a number of very small challengers. Scientists at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA are working under a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Energy to produce biofuels from algae and human waste. Instead of relying on dirty tar sands and massive amounts of energy to extract and transport the viscous petroleum, algae needs only the contents of a toilet bowl and some sunlight. The algae not only helps to clean municipal waste water efficiently and inexpensively, but takes advantage of a basically free source of food for the microorganisms to grow. Governments are able to meet the rising costs of removing impurities from water, provide green jobs, and avoid scarcity issues related to using water to grow biofuel crops or fracturing shale. Algae can even be sold as feedstock to biofuel refineries for an extra source of income.

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The Cal Poly team, also known as the Algae Technology Group (ATG), was established in 2006 to research biofuels and water reclamation. With the grant from the DOE, the ATG is using experimental “raceway” style algae ponds at the nearby San Luis Obispo Water Reclamation Facility to conduct their project. The raceway consists of nine large ponds that cover half an acre at the facility. While electricity is needed to circulate water within the ponds and run auxiliary equipment, solar power and other renewables could eventually run future operations depending on site and grid specifications. Harnessing the power of the almost always-shining central Californian sun, algae is a natural choice for purification and energy production.

“Like all plants, algae release oxygen while absorbing CO2 and nutrients. Wastewater purification requires oxygen and the removal of nutrients, which are pollutants if they escape to waterways. Using sunlight energy, the algae are able to treat wastewater to meet California water recycling standards.” explains project co-leader Tryg Lundquist.

The ATG estimates that in California, with only ten percent of the energy market, algae biofuels could save residents $240 million a year. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts that the country could eventually churn out 21 billion gallons of algae biofuel annually. Instead of relying on nuclear facilities or pipelines carrying fossil fuels from a thousands of miles away, America may soon be a nation powered by plants.

+ Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Via Clean Technica

Images via Wikicommons users Dietzel65 and Eug