September 23, 2009

Arizona Project Uses Algae to Turn Coal Pollution Into Biofuel

Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electricity provider, has secured $70.5 million in stimulus funds to expand an innovative project that turns carbon dioxide emissions from a coal power plant into biofuel using algae. While part of the funds will be used to scale up the algae processing portion, some of the funds will also be used to investigate the potential benefits of turning the coal into a gas prior to burning it for power.

The concept of creating two products — electricity and fuel — from the same process is known as cogeneration. In this case, the cogeneration also helps to reduce environmental pollution. It’s an idea that has been gathering support as a way to make coal less polluting while finding an additional revenue source to pay for the pollution control itself. In fact, a while back I reported on a similar pilot project in Oregon.

Apparently, Arizona Public Service was able to convince the government that by combining the pollution-to-algae-fuel and coal-gasification research into one project, it was worthy of receiving such a large grant. It’s only the second stimulus research grant that has gone towards a carbon capture project, with the first being a project that compresses carbon dioxide for storage underground.

The project is being hosted at the 995-megawatt Cholla Power Plant in northeastern Arizona. Early results indicate that the algae are able to capture 70 metric tons of carbon dioxide per pond acre per year.

Personally I think we should wean ourselves off coal completely, but given that the US has huge reserves of the stuff and the political heirarchy is probably unwilling to go that route, we’re likely stuck with using coal for quite some time. So, if you can’t beat ‘em, make ‘em pollute less, right? While projects like this ultimately represent a crutch and a band-aid, they are still necessary to fix the climate crisis if we refuse to get off fossil fuels entirely.

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