Bolted onto the exhaust stacks of a brick-and-glass 20-megawatt power plant behind MIT's campus are rows of fat, clear tubes, each with green algae soup simmering inside.
Fed a generous helping of CO2-laden emissions, courtesy of the power plant's exhaust stack, the algae grow quickly even in the wan rays of a New England sun. The cleansed exhaust bubbles skyward, but with 40 percent less CO2 (a larger cut than the Kyoto treaty mandates) and another bonus: 86 percent less nitrous oxide.
After the CO2 is soaked up like a sponge, the algae is harvested daily. From that harvest, a combustible vegetable oil is squeezed out: biodiesel for automobiles. Berzin hands a visitor two vials - one with algal biodiesel, a clear, slightly yellowish liquid, the other with the dried green flakes that remained. Even that dried remnant can be further reprocessed to create ethanol, also used for transportation.
Here, it bears mentioning that, for all my algae advocacy, I've never actually seen real, honest-to-god algae biodiesel. Also, what the hell are they thinking calling unprocessed vegetable oil (even if it's from algae) "biodiesel"? Argh. Such a typical mistake.
One key is selecting an algae with a high oil density - about 50 percent of its weight. Because this kind of algae also grows so fast, it can produce 15,000 gallons of biodiesel per acre. Just 60 gallons are produced from soybeans, which along with corn are the major biodiesel crops today.
Corn oil biodiesel? Not likely. (I wish the journalist would do just a little more research)
Still, I'm liking the article. Let's get to some of the good stuff...
For his part, Berzin calculates that just one 1,000 megawatt power plant using his system could produce more than 40 million gallons of biodiesel and 50 million gallons of ethanol a year. That would require a 2,000-acre "farm" of algae-filled tubes near the power plant. There are nearly 1,000 power plants nationwide with enough space nearby for a few hundred to a few thousand acres to grow algae and make a good profit, he says.
Read that last paragraph again. That's why I am in the biofuels business, right there. Sustainable fossil fuel substitute, via a path of bio-remediation.
Let's see... 1,000 X 40 million = 40 Billion gallons of algae biodiesel from power plants alone. Boo-ya!
Remember that article by Michael Briggs that I'm always promoting?
In 1990, Sheehan's NREL program calculated that just 15,000 square miles of desert (the Sonoran desert in California and Arizona is more than eight times that size) could grow enough algae to replace nearly all of the nation's current diesel requirements.
"I've had quite a few phone calls recently about it," says Mr. Sheehan. "This is not an outlandish idea at all."
Well, let's hope this new little bit of press turns some heads. Spread the word.