August 5, 2009

The algae solution

The San Francisco Bay may soon host a dramatic new environmental project that backers say could solve three problems at once: clean wastewater, remove carbon from the atmosphere, and produce biodiesel fuel. Yet it's gotten remarkably little attention.

"For the most part, people are just ignoring me," says Jonathan Trent, a researcher at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, who is one of the driving forces behind the project.

The new technology Trent and his colleagues have created is called OMEGA (Off-shore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae). The idea is to grow large colonies of freshwater algae in what amounts to large plastic bags floating in the bay.

Wastewater from local sewage plants and carbon sequestered from power plants would provide food for the algae, which then produce oxygen and freshwater along with an oil that can be refined into fuel.

The OMEGAs are giant semi-permeable membranes; the design allows freshwater in but keeps saltwater out.

Using algae for biofuel isn't new — there are a number of algae farms on land. But they require large amounts of real estate and fresh water and enough electricity to keep the water moving.

In this case, light from the sun provides the energy, and the motion of the waves stirs the algae around.

Trent is looking at ways to collect the freshwater that gets released by the OMEGAs — potentially another major breakthrough for a state desperately short of water.

Trent has shopped his project all over the world and many countries have showed interest, but he believes San Francisco is the perfect fit. "The people of San Francisco really have an enlightened attitude and are aware that something needs to be done to fix the problems we've created," he told us. "It's a great place to demonstrate to the world that this is a feasible technology."

The OMEGA project still faces political hurdles. Trent recently survived an internal audit. And U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) has been critical of federal spending for biofuel projects.

But the scientist isn't discouraged. "Actually I'm glad we have been audited," he said. "I've been able to get attention and show that not only does our system not use water, it actually produces clean water."

On July 29 the project received approval for an $800,000 grant from the California Energy Commission. According to Trent, the approval for the grant was ready for approval months earlier, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to put it on hold because of the budget crisis.

The CEC grant is coming just in time. A previous grant, from Google, was due to run out at the end of September. "We're optimistic that if people see that the CEC has invested, maybe others will want to invest," Trent said. "But we need more than just financial resources — we need brain power as well. The next step is to find engineers to really make this a workable option."

Trent would like to get a working model up and running within the next 18 months and hopes to see a full-scale operation in place in five years.

San Francisco may be the first city to host OMEGA. San Francisco Public Utilities Commission staffers have met with Trent and are cautiously optimistic. "Although it is just at the preliminary stages of discussion, it doesn't dampen our excitement about the project," said Tyrone Jue, spokesperson for the SFPUC. "We have to know what good we will get out of it and if it is feasible in this area."

Environmentalists caution that it's far from a perfect solution to the planet's problems. Sierra Club staffer John Rizzo notes that "biofuels themselves are not a good solution. It's a good bridge, but they are still burned and create carbons that are bad for the planet." In the short term, however, it sure beats drilling for oil off the California coast.

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