A lot of people are merrily jumping on the eco-friendly bandwagon. As reported last week, Bob Lutz wants higher fuel prices to encourage ‘green energy’ solutions. And by promising to significantly cut carbon emissions, President Obama is cleaning up many of the former US administration’s green policies. And now scientists in Kentucky are getting in on the act by farming algae. Excuse me?
No, it’s not a hoax. The men in white coats at Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy (CAER) are actually looking to pond scum as a means to create cleaner coal-fired power plants (). But doesn’t ‘cleaner coal-fired plants’ sound like a complete contradiction in terms? Well no, not when algae is part of the equation.
Algae ‘sludge’ is being hailed as a new eco-solution because it essentially acts like a big ‘nasty emission’ sponge filter. The microscopic organisms that lie teaming within a blanket of algae actually absorb gasses such as carbon dioxide, and this is what is exciting scientists.
When you consider that much of the US’s carbon emissions come from burning coal for power, you can begin to understand why the $3.5 million ‘pond scum project’ is so important.
But there are a few big challenges facing this project. Firstly, scientists are still trying to find the right type of algae that will not only be the most efficient in absorbing CO2, but also be able to withstand the harsh environment of a power station flue. Secondly, getting the project to work on a commercial scale is proving difficult. As it stands, around 8 square miles of algae is required to remove carbon dioxide from a medium-sized 500 megawatt power plant.
So, not an ideal situation at present. However there is hope that eventually a more commercially viable sized model can be developed. One solution is to condense square miles into algae-tank farms.
But what algae also has in its favor is that it can grow almost anywhere – including desert conditions. It also has an important additional property that adds an extra ‘wow’ factor into the mix. The biomass from algae that has absorbed carbon dioxide can be refined into an oil that can then be processed into biodiesel. This is something that could potentially help to relieve our current dependence on petroleum.
Again, at the moment the technology needs some considerable tweaking, as the cost of producing the algae-based fuel is nowhere near being commercially viable. Quite simply, it just costs too much right now.
But on the positive side, there are quite a few companies ploughing money into developing this aspect of the algae-based initiative. There is generally a feeling that it eventually it’ll get to a stage where an algae-based fuel is ready for the common market. Some say this could take as long as a decade, whereas others are forecasting a more optimistic two years. And consider this – if the likes of Bill Gates and the US Government are keen to get in on the act, then surely the outcome is looking pretty promising.