E&E Part 5: Floating Algae Ponds

Biofuels have gotten a lot of attention over the last few years as a potential replacement to fossil fuels. However, the amount of land and water needed for producing the biofuels might even have a worse carbon footprint than fossil fuels.[1] That is why NASA organized a team of researchers to find a way to produce biofuel without competing with agriculture for water, fertilizer, and land.[2] The team was led by Jonathan Trent and they are responsible for the new OMEGA project. OMEGA stands for Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae. The OMEGA project is a revolutionary step into a future where humans no longer harm the environment in our pursuit of energy but rather support it.

The OMEGA project is a very comprehensive and advanced group in the biomass/biofuel field. Microalgae was chosen as the biofuel source because of its incredible potential. Microalgae has virtually no carbon footprint because all of the carbon dioxide is releases into the atmosphere was already there in the first place. Microalgae is also capable of producing 2000-5000 gallons of biofuel per acre-year.[3] The next closest source of biofuel can only produce 600 gallons of biofuel per acre-year. [3] Additionally, microalgae needs only four things to survive which are sunlight, carbon dioxide, nutrients, and temperature control. Sunlight and carbon dioxide are everywhere but nutrients and temperature control are a bit harder to maintain. From there, OMEGA scientists had to find a cheap and effective way to supply nutrients to the microalgae and control the temperature. The solution came with the idea to implement an enclosure system offshore near water treatment plants. The reason being that all of the nutrients needed for growing microalgae can be found in wastewater. Additionally, the water and waves keep the microalgae at a constant temperature throughout the enclosure. So along with all the other environmental benefits from microalgae, this system utilizes our wastewater effectively reducing water pollution. With this conceptual idea, OMEGA scientists genetically developed microalgae that could thrive off of wastewater and produce the most amount of biofuel. The actual enclosures are essentially industrial plastic bags that keep the system contained. Wastewater and carbon dioxide is then pumped into the bags to feed the microalgae. The microalgae then use photosynthesis to grow and produce oxygen. The oxygen is then pumped out along with the excess microalgae that can be used as fuel.

The economic cost of these systems are still rather high because of high start-up costs but OMEGA scientist, Jonathan Trent believes that the solution can be solved through integration.[3] These offshore systems could also be designed to capture other sources of energy. Wind and solar energy can be incorporated into the system through photovoltaic cells and small wind turbines. [3] Since these systems are going offshore, why not also incorporate an aspect to support marine life. These systems could double as artificial reefs that promote life. By implementing these kinds of systems, cities not only get cleaner energy but they are reducing water pollution and supporting marine life.



  1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/26/AR2008022602827.html
  2. http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/research/OMEGA/index.html
  3. https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_trent_energy_from_floating_algae_pods

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Final Project: Energy and Ecology – Tying Everything Together | New Writing, Post-Human: CS 2367.04 at OSU

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