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Algae, Slime and Other Innovate Energy Sources

J. Mijin Cha

NASA's OMEGA SystemWe hear a lot about solar, wind, and geothermal as alternative energy sources, but what about algae?

NASA is working to develop a process by which clean energy is produced by algae that feeds on wastewater. The idea is to grow algae in floating plastic bags that would take in wastewater from treatment plants. Algae, unlike many other things, thrive off of wastewater with the ammonia and phosphates acting as a fertilizer for the plant. NASA’s idea is simple: The algae are placed in a semi-permeable plastic bag to float in the ocean. Salty and dirty ocean water flows into the bag, the algae feeds on the nutrients in the sewage, and fresh water flows out of the bag. Algae produce fatty, lipid cells loaded with oil that can be used as fuel so when the process is complete, biofuels will be made and sewage will be processed.

Algae are also playing a big part in a creative energy process development in Montana that is bringing loggers and scientists together. Using leftover wood chips, a mechanical cow, and sunshine, developers in Montana think they can generate power, heat, steam and organic fertilizer. The process begins by burning wood chips at high temperatures in an oxygen-deprived atmosphere, which results in charcoal, rather than ash, and drives of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The hydrogen and carbon monoxide are then pumped back into the system to burn more wood. Burning the wood chips also generates heat and carbon dioxide, which algae thrive on. Compost is created when some of the heat from making the charcoal is bled off to warm in a digester, where it helps compost an algae-wood mixture. The inputs to the process are sunshine, wood waste, and algae and the outputs are either recycled back into the process or turned into marketable products. Any resulting carbon is trapped in soils.