NASA Ready To Show Off Algae Biofuel Research Project

Wastewater & biofuel algae circulate through floating photobioreactors at San Francisco plant / NASA

Wastewater & biofuel algae circulate through floating photobioreactors at San Francisco plant / NASA

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NASA has developed a system that captures carbon dioxide and helps to prevent pollution from wastewater while creating renewable algae biofuel, fertilizer and possibly animal feed, too.

NASA calls its system OMEGA, for Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae, self-contained bags of wastewater and fast-growing algae cultures that are designed to float in seawater off the coast of a landmass and produce biofuels, NASA hopes for fueling planes.

As the algae grow inside the bags, they absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide through the bags’ membranes and produce oxygen, which releases to the atmosphere through the membrane.

The algae also absorb nutrients, creating fresh water that passes easily through the membrane into the sea, acting as a next-level treatment phase, helping to reduce the risk of creating local dead zones.

The OMEGA system has been undergoing test runs at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant. A demonstration scale operation is now ready for its close-up, including an April 17 media tour.

OMEGA was developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

NASA claims the OMEGA system is far more efficient than conventional algae farming methods.

By growing the algae within a bag rather than in open ponds or channels, OMEGA eliminates the need for water-circulating equipment and virtually eliminates water loss due to evaporation.

OMEGA also reduces or eliminates the need for energy-sucking climate control systems that would be needed to regulate the temperature of land-based water storage facilities.

Aside from producing oil, fresh water and oxygen, the spent algae can be reclaimed for use as a fertilizer or soil enhancer. Researchers are also beginning to test algae as a feed supplement for livestock.

Equipment maintenance and lifecycle expenses are another important consideration for cost-effective algae farming, and OMEGA wins out here, too. The system involves few moving parts and the plastic tubes could be recycled when their useful life is up.

Algae, especially freshwater algae, is an attractive biofuel due to its ability to grow rapidly while producing lipid cells bursting with oil.

Other biofuel crops just can’t compete: according to NASA, some algae can produce more than 2,000 gallons of oil per acre per year, compared to only 600 gallons for palm. Soy beans fare even worse, at only 50 gallons per acre per year.

Legislators who are taking aim at the Obama Administration’s algae biofuel initiatives will once again have to rethink their plan if they want to take a potshot at OMEGA.

The project was initially conceived as the Sustainable Energy for Spaceship Earth program at NASA under the Bush Administration in 2007, when Google provided some seed money for alternative energy research at Ames.

In 2010 a news report on attempts to increase federal funding for Omega sparked an investigation by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General, but no ethics violations were found and the dust appears to have settled.

This article, written by Tina Casey, was originally published on TalkingPointsMemo, an editorial partner of GreenCarReports.


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