Saturday, October 8, 2011

First Visit to an Algae Farm

Alganomics is a small algae company in Oak Island, NC. Located on the property of the wastewater treatment plant, the algae is grown in plastic tubes using reuse water from the plant. The operation is still in its experimental stage, like most algae operations around the world. I ache to see this industry take off, but I must be patient.

For its next stage, Alganomics will build open ponds in a nearby park. Open ponds are the cheapest way to grow algae, but the drawback is that the particular strain of algae intended to be grown in the pond can find itself competing with less productive strains that invade the pond. To address this problem, Alganomics will use its plastic tubes to grow the desired algae strain in high concentrations. Then it will inoculate the open ponds with this strain, giving it an advantage over other strains.

Extracting the oil is one of the biggest challenges in algae farming. I had not heard of Alganomics’ method before, which is to simply pressurize the solution of algae and water to crack open the algae cells. Whether this is cost effective remains to be seen. (Another interesting method I know of is that of is that of OriginOIl’s, which uses CO2 to lower the pH of the algae/water solution, then adds radiation to crack the cells.)

Alganomics’ extraction compressor is on a trailer. It can travel to natural ponds all over the region and remove the oil from the algae growing in those ponds. I think the intention is not to make a business out of farming algae in natural ponds, but rather to show farmers that they can set up their own algae production facilities, use manure from their farm as fertilizer, and have their oil harvested periodically by the mobile extractor.

This speaks to the local aspect of algae farming, which is like the local food movement. By reusing and recycling pollution (manure and CO2 for instance) locally, communities can produce their own fuel with little outside input. This would be quite a transformation in how we look at energy. But, the economic feasibility of algae farming has yet to be proven.

The leading project in the world to watch for algae feasibility on a large scale is this one in Australia, where MBD Energy and Origin Oil are working to grow algae on the CO2 emissions from a power plant.

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