NASA recently showcased the latest research on a method to grow algae, clean wastewater, capture carbon dioxide and ultimately produce feedstock for refining biofuels without competing with agriculture for water, fertilizer, or land.
The unique floating algae cultivation system, called Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae (OMEGA), managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., will be available to transfer to the commercial sector in May 2012, according to the NASA website.
Project scientist Jonathan Trent was quoted in the Bay City News as saying that the main motivation for the OMEGA project is to rapidly develop a feasible alternative to fossil fuels for jet propellants: "It is absolutely crucial that we move away from fossil fuels."
A small-scale OMEGA system was developed in seawater tanks at the California Fish and Game laboratory in Santa Cruz, Calif., and scaled up to a 450-gallon system at the Southeast Wastewater Treatment facility in San Francisco.
The OMEGA system is designed to grow freshwater algae in municipal wastewater using NASA photobioreactors – flexible plastic tubes that float in seawater. In the process of growing, the algae treat wastewater and address environmental problems by consuming nutrients from the wastewater and carbon dioxide.
The nutrients, if left unconsumed, would otherwise be released into the coastal waters contributing to undesired algae blooms. Just like shrubs and trees, algae have an appetite for the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. The algae release oxygen into the air as they absorb carbon dioxide, retrieve their nutrients from wastewater, and use energy from the sun to grow. These tiny single-cell algae are the fastest growing plants on the planet.
Depending on the amount of sunlight, nutrients, water temperature and a few other environmental conditions, algae can double their numbers every day and be ready to harvest in just three to five days. Some kinds of algae make oil, which can be converted into environmentally friendly and sustainable biofuels. In addition, the remains of the algae, after removing the oil, can be used to produce other products, such as fertilizer, natural gas, and animal feed.
Among other research results to be published in May, the OMEGA research team demonstrated that the floating plastic tubes of algae pose no apparent threat to marine animals in a set of small-scale experiments.
"We have continuous video of various prototypes of photobioreactors, day and night, over a six-month period. We see birds and sea otters interacting with the system, but it does not impact their well being," said Trent. "Preliminary data showed that the interactions of these animals are not problematic to the system or its functions. "
”We’ve addressed some of the more daunting technological problems for implementing OMEGA,” said Trent. “Now the hope is that other organizations and industries will realize the potential of the OMEGA technology for wastewater treatment and ultimately to produce sustainable biofuels.”
Trent told the Bay City News that the main motivation for the OMEGA project is to rapidly develop a feasible alternative to fossil fuels for jet propellants: "It is absolutely crucial that we move away from fossil fuels."
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