As pressure on the Obama Administration to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline ramps up, algae biofuel is emerging as yet another domestic energy source that undercuts every argument for the project, which is designed to convey tar sands oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. In the latest development, researchers from Cal Poly in Saint Luis Obispo, California, are working on a $1.3 million algae biofuel project that deploys algae to solve a massive waste problem familiar to anyone who has ever flushed a toilet, while saving money for cash-strapped local governments, creating new green jobs and generating biofuel, too.
Though algae biofuel as a commercially viable fuel has its naysayers, the new research project is big news for legions of toilet-flushing Americans, particularly those who pay sewer taxes.
The basic idea behind the Cal Poly project is to add value to the algae biofuel production process, by using municipal wastewater as a nutrient source for growing algae.
The algae would provide an energy-efficient, low cost means of removing impurities from wastewater. That savings, plus the potential for income from selling algae feedstock to biofuel refineries, could enable local governments to meet rising water quality challenges under tight budgets.
Meanwhile, the availability of a virtually free, highly dependable source of water and nutrients would offset the cost of growing algae for biofuel. The use of municipal wastewater would also help to avoid the water scarcity issues that impact land-grown biofuel crops.
A $1.3 Million Algae Biofuel Research Project
The new project consists of a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. As described by Cal Poly, a multidisciplinary team called the Algae Technology Group (ATG) will tackle the challenge, using experimental “raceway” style algae ponds at the San Luis Obispo Water Reclamation Facility.
ATG already has a running start on the project. The team was established in 2006 to research wastewater reclamation and biofuels, and in a state like California the payoff for that research could be huge. The team estimates that even with only ten percent market penetration in California, ratepayers would save about $240 million per year.
A recent article by David Sneed of The Tribune News describes the raceway as consisting of nine algae ponds taking up about half an acre of space at the treatment facility. Electricity is needed to circulate water in the ponds and run other equipment related to the algae operation, but depending on the site and the grid that could ultimately be provided by solar power or other forms of renewable energy.
Energy Efficient Wastewater Treatment and Biofuel Production
Aside from the operating equipment, project co-leader Tryg Lundquist explains how the team hopes to rely primarily on solar power to achieve their goal:
“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.”
In terms of generating a liquid fuel feedstock of any type, that gets algae off to a roaring start compared to tar sands oil, which requires massive amounts of energy even just to get it into a liquified state for transport through a pipeline (to give you an idea of the scale, on site nuclear power plants have been proposed as a future energy source for tar sands processing).
On top of that there’s the expense of carbon capture for tar sands processing, but we digress…
Big Plans for Algae Biofuel
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the U.S. could eventually produce about 21 billion gallons of algae biofuel annually, and that’s just in regions of the U.S. where the process requires less water.
The Cal Poly project is just the tip of the algae biofuel research iceberg. Under the Biomass Program, the Department of Energy has been establishing a network of algae research projects and test bed facilities. The network includes other algae research powerhouses such as Texas A&M University.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.