April 7, 2008

More than just pond scum: Fueling the need for alternative energy

By Donathan Prater
Published: April 5, 2008

In most cases, referring to someone as pond scum would be considered an insult.

However, for one Opelika man, the term potentially represents keen insight in addressing the fuel needs of the world someday in the not too distant future.

Earlier this week, David James, headmaster of Eastwood Christian School in Opelika, had a number of representatives from area laboratories and the U.S. Department of Agriculture present as he demonstrated a process in which algae (pond scum) could be collected from water, dried and pressed using a kinetic energy machine to extract oil that could be used as a fuel source.

May 19, James plans to have a much larger alternative energies demonstration at Eastwood Christian School, where he will have equipment on the site of his school, capable of gathering algae used to make biodiesel fuels.

A number of state officials, television networks, the National Guard and even a zeppelin fueled with biodiesel made from algae will hover over the private school on May 19.

The vehicles at the school will all be running on a number of biodiesel fuels made from algae as well.

“Today we’re proving that this can really happen,” said James, who was attempting to extract biodiesel from algae for the first time.

How it “happens” is via a process called transesterification.

And when it comes to satisfying the world’s energy consumption needs, the type of algae (chlorella, a freshwater, single-celled plant) used in the transesterification process is well-suited to its use.

“The fast-growing species of algae that we’re interested in can produce a minimum of a thousand gallons of oil per year per acre as compared to soybeans which the biodiesel industry is currently using that is lucky to get about 40 gallons per acre per year,” said Ron Putt, a chemical engineering professor at Auburn University who is also heading up the algae-growing program at AU. “The algae we’re talking about using in this process, can double its population every seven hours.”

“The state of Alabama uses three billion gallons of fuel a year. We can produce that amount on a million acres,” Putt said.

“We hope in time that people like catfish farmers understand that algae is going to be a profitable plant, and that they can raise it as a cash crop” said James.

Once the algae is dried, pressed and its oil extracted, the cellulose material that remains can be used as livestock feed.

While the May 19 alternative energy demonstration at Eastwood Christian will be closed to the public, there will be a live Internet feed available to any school, media center or college that wants to witness the transesterification process or see the vehicles at the school using the algae-based fuel.

“Legislators may not always understand the importance of biofuels in general, but young minds in our schools are the ones we need to penetrate with this message as well,” said Tommy Greene, president of T-CO Alternative Fuels and Energy Systems of Moultrie, Ga.

“We want people to know that we can overcome our energy problems and that Alabama can lead the way in doing that,” James said.

No comments: