Let’s face it. Algae aren’t very exciting. But the prospect of creating a viable source of biofuel from these microscopic organisms is, and a Nevada company is finally starting to make a go of it with their pilot plant off the coast of Alabama that uses sewage as fertilizer. Making biofuels out of algae is nothing new, but thus far creating a large-scale operation to extract lipids and create fuel from them has been nonviable because the process is complicated and expensive. But according to the New York Times, Nevada-based Algae Systems has a pilot plant in Alabama it says can turn a profit making diesel fuel from algae, along with several other functions including: generating clean water from municipal sewage used to fertilize the algae, using carbon-heavy residue for fertilizer, and generating credits for advanced biofuels.
The process works via a “hydrothermal liquefaction” system in which the algae along with sewage solids are heated to more than 550 degrees Fahrenheit at a pressure of 3,000 pounds per square inch – which churns out a liquid that looks a lot like crude oil straight from the well. After having hydrogen added to it by scientists at Auburn University (a common step in refining crude oil to make diesel), an independent laboratory confirmed that the biofuel met industry standards for diesel. The innovation is so promising it caught the attention of independent scientists and garnered Algae Systems a $4 million grant from the Department of Energy for a partnership with SRI International for further work on the system.
The system takes advantage of the natural characteristics of Alabama’s Mobile Bay, using giant plastic bags filled with sewage and algae that float on the water, moored together at each end. The bay water keeps the algae at the right temperature and waves stir the contents. The pilot plant consumes pollutants like phosphorus and nitrogen that are to blame for the recent Lake Erie bloom and the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It can also destroy pathogens in sewage, while engineers hope the system could also get rid of a whole spate of hazardous materials.
Via New York Times