NASA’s Grand Plan to Replace Fossil Fuels with Algae


Schematic explaining NASA's plans to take sewage effluent to grow algae inside membranes located in the ocean.

In the previous post we learned about Dr Baum’s work to promote the potential of algae as a Do it Yourself (DIY)  solution to change our lives and remove or at least reduce our dependency on a corporate system that’s highly reliant on fossil fuel technologies for providing us the products we need to survive in the modern world.

Now we are going to hear more about the grand plan for taking algae out of the research laboratory and putting it into a large scale industrial system for producing algae to replace the current industrial refinery and petrochemical model that is the basis for our modern lifestyle.

Dr Jonathon Trent is the founder of the OMEGA Project.  OMEGA stands for Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae. The project was started as concerns about human induced changes to the climate and planetary life support systems mounted and also as evidence for the potential of algae to solve those problems increased.

The Algae OMEGA project is meant to provide significant quantities of sustainable, carbon-neutral biofuels, as well as food, fertilizer, and other useful products, while treating wastewater and sequestering carbon dioxide. It provides these products and services without competing with agriculture for land, fertilizer or freshwater.

– Jonathan Trent

Bioengineer researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center and principal investigator and project scientist for the NASA project

The OMEGA Project builds on work done at the NASA related research done years ago under the name Controlled Ecological Life Support Systems (CELSS). The BioHome facility for example was completed in 1969 in response to pioneering Soviet efforts in this field during the so called Space Race. The BioHome facility as a CELLS or a.k.a Closed Ecological System was designed to simulate the conditions needed to provide one human enough food for living in space indefinitely.

What people began to realize as the result of this research was that a lot of the research done on how to provide long term life support in space travel applies first and foremost in relation to our own survival on this planet. So now creating CELLS or CEL models has emerged as the basic template integrated food production/farming and agro-industrial systems on a multitude of levels and potential applications. The systems pioneered by people like George Chan and Alexandre Takamatsu under the Brazilian TECPAR/ZERI partnership in Parana State as they sought to develop more ecologically harmonious solutions for feeding humanity.

Thanks to their pioneering efforts and others like it around the world, the design of integrated systems are now becoming more and more commonplace, replacing the flawed industrial monoculture model of agricultural production put forwards as part of the so-called Green Revolution. A multitude of other names such as Permaculture, Aquaponics, Agroecology, GrowBionintensive are basically referring to a similar process of holistically managing biological systems using the concepts that Janine Beynus calls Biomimicky – adding to the confusion.

More sophisticated and complex prototypes rely on optimization through advanced computer monitoring and modelling technologies and often referred to as bio-cybernetic integrated systems (BCIS). The OMEGA algae development plan for the San Francisco Bay at Treasure Island really takes the same Integrated Food/Farming System concept and applies it to algae production.

OMEGA set up two sites to set-up its algae prototype R&D facility. A skunkworks lab that tests the hydraulics and other important characteristics by building lab examples of the bioreactors. While the Treasure Island facility operates as a small scale field model to test out the results of the research in the lab. The prototype takes the wastewater treatment plant effluent (source of nutrients) and flue gas (source of CO2) to grow algae in greenhouses. In the process the wastewater is purified and the CO2 sequestered into the algae biomass.

Advanced development of the prototype at Treasure Island, includes using the wastewater as the basis for growing algae in  photoreactors made of a plastic “membrane enclosures”. These enclosures will float just below the surface of the ocean. As the waves move, the algae are circulated/mixed within the reactor and grow rapidly using natural sunlight. A benefit to the proposed ocean location is that no land is used to grow the algae so traditional farming systems are not being displaced for algae production. Another benefit to the design of the system is how the fluegas from a powerplant located on Treasure Island supplies the CO2 needs of the algae.

Algae would be used in a biorefinery process to obtain various extracts that could be applied to many different products and services in a sustainable economy.

For it to replace the petro/fossil fuel economy such a project would have to operate on a enormous scale. Dr Trent says we would therefore need to make sure it was well designed enough to address the needs and concerns of various other stakeholders in the SF Bay or other bays where these projects operated.

Dr Trent refers to the CES approach several times in the video of his TEDx Santa Cruz presentation. In such an approach wind energy could be used to power the facility, while the algae would be a feedstock that went into the biorefinery to make industrial grade extracts that would be the ingredients for products such as fuels, lubricants, foods and food additives, health drinks/nutritional supplements and beauty supplies.

More Stories about OMEGA in the Media:

  1. NASA bags algae, wastewater in bid for aviation fuel (www.nytimes.com)
  2. NASA Grows Algae for Biofuel, Treats Waste (www.discovery.com)
  3. NASA Wants to Bag Biofuel From Sewage (www.greeneconomypost.com)
  4. Blooming Biofuel: How Algae Could Provide the Solution (www.renewableenergyworld.com)
  5. Potential of Algae – Interview with Dr. Jonathan Trent (www.greenenergytv.com)
  6. NASA Uses Algae to Turn Sewage Into Fuel (www.space.com)
  7. NASA’s got a new way to get biofuel from algae (www.cleantech.com)
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