NEW PORT RICHEY
Dean Tsoupeis was stopped at a red light, directly behind a big diesel truck. As noxious exhaust fumes wafted through the vents of his broken air conditioner, he thought, "There's got to be a better way than this." Today Tsoupeis, 40, a graduate of Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, credits that unpleasant experience, along with his admiration for the cooking-oil fueled Veggie Van, with providing the inspiration to grow algae as a way to help liberate the world from its dependence on fossil fuel and head off a worldwide food shortage.
"Algae created the atmosphere," said Tsoupeis, (pronounced Sou-PACE). "Our DNA comes from algae."
So Tsoupeis, who at 19 opened his first business, a printing company, has now opened Culturing Solutions, an algae farm on several acres of land behind a tree nursery.
He has developed a demonstration model of his algae-to-fuel system, which he'll unveil Thursday to Pasco County commissioners, city officials, engineers — and even potential investors.
The system, which creates oil intended to be converted to biofuel and other purposes, looks like a greenhouse roof that sits on the ground. Beside it are several tanks and a large rectangular frame with thin tubes. From far away it looks like horizontal window blinds or numerous rows of fluorescent lightbulbs.
The algae is in a tank with carbon dioxide, which is its food source. It then is pumped up through the tubes, which expose it to light particles to complete photosynthesis. That's the name of the process that plants use to make sugar and turn it into energy. The frame, which is 10 feet tall and can sustain 130 mph winds, also has a built-in sunscreen to protect the algae from ultraviolet rays.
The algae then is pumped back into the tank. Eventually, it is sent via underground pumps to the greenhouse roof, which covers a 15,000-gallon pond, where it continues to grow until it reaches the proper density.
From that point it can be stressed for its oil or heated to produce pigments for cosmetics. The oils are often used in vitamins and supplements. And it can also be converted to biofuel.
"It's very versatile," Tsoupeis said. "We can switch strains during the year depending on market conditions."
According to Tsoupeis' website, his strains of algae can be genetically modified to have very high sugar and starch content or a very high lipid oil content. The first can be used for ethanol production. The oil can be used in biodiesel fuel. Algae products also can be used as feed at fish farms.
If it's so easy, why don't we see algae farms on every corner?
Tsoupeis said it's tough to control contamination. He experimented with an open pond just to see what would happen.
"Samples taken within one day showed it had 50 different things in it," he said.
His proprietary system, which has a patent pending, takes care of that, he says. He says it's being used successfully in Rhode Island, Australia, Romania, Hungary and Russia.
He estimates he could produce 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of oil a year.
Despite the buzz over algae biodiesel, critics point out that there hasn't been any real testing done with actual cars, although companies around the world have struck deals with big oil companies to produce the pond scum, according to the website howstuffworks.com.
In January 2008, a company used algae biodiesel to fuel a Mercedes Benz E320 diesel, which was driven around Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival. However, no statistics were released on the car's engine performance or gas mileage.
But Tsoupeis has big dreams.
"Our vision is to displace as much petroleum as possible and feed the world," he said. "This does both."
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