October 10, 2009

Missouri tapping coal mines for ‘slime power’

Since algae feed on carbon dioxide, underground mines serve as the perfect incubators for their growth and are abundant in Missouri. Mines maintain a stable temperature and shield the organisms from sunlight. David Summers, professor of Mining Engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology, said mines provide an infrastructure for algae cultivation that does not have to be built—the ponds, reactors and other paraphernalia usually associated with algae production.

“You can isolate the algae from the sun in a mine,” Summers said. “We can use artificial light in short intervals and fool the plants into thinking that days and nights are very short [for faster growth]. We have a stable temperature underground, ambient conditions and modulated light—this means better control.”

A reactor could be 30 feet deep in a mine and, combined with other aspects suited to cultivation, could increase yields 500 times over algae grown on pond surfaces, Summers told Biodiesel Magazine. Algae could also help coal-producing companies find cheaper alternatives to becoming emissions-free, and may provide a carbon sink for coal-fired power plants.

In a separate project, Washington University’s Photosynthetic Research Center in St. Louis and the Advanced Biofuels Systems at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center recently received $35 million dollars from the U.S. DOE to fund research related to the oil-producing characteristics of algae. A spokesperson for the Missouri Partnership for economic development said Missouri, with its abundant access to water, flat land, fertilizer and even its own unique algae strain native to the state, could make the state a “hub” for algae-to-fuel production.

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