WOOSTER, Ohio — At first glance, the work being done at the algae research farm in Wayne County might seem a bit confusing.
The system of cement ponds, plastic pipes and large vertical tubes filled with green algae makes for an unusual sight amidst the corn and soybean fields that make up most of the county.
But researchers involved with the project say they’re on track to achieve new forms of energy and reduce the amount of carbon pollution from coal-fired plants — all thanks to the simple and natural properties of algae.
The research — adjacent to Cedar Lane Farms greenhouse — currently is capturing and routing carbon dioxide emissions from a coal-fired furnace, into the ponds to be consumed by the algae. It cuts down on about 60 percent of emissions into the atmosphere, which would otherwise cause greenhouse gasses and potentially lead to climate change.
Researchers also plan to use the algae for biofuel production, and explore other products that can be made from algae.
Partners include Touchstone Research Laboratory of West Virginia, Ohio State University, GZA GeoEnvironmental, Open Algae and Cedar Lane Farms. They held a kickoff event July 25 to show the types of research being done at the newly opened facility.
Brian Joseph, president of Touchstone, stood next to a series of tall cylinders filled with water and algae, and spoke about the future potential of the project.
“There are few times in your career when you realize that what you’re doing has an influence on the future,” he said. “And the opening of this is one of those.”
Currently, algae is generally not considered an economical way to reduce carbon emissions or produce biofuels, according to officials on the tour.
“Right now there are a lot of companies that are attempting to grow algae on a large scale,” said Philip Lane, of business development. “There are very few that are successful right now.”
One of the challenges, he said, is evaporation. The Wayne County plant loses about 450 gallons a water a day, he said, and researchers are trying new ways to reduce the amount of evaporation as much as possible.
Another issue is unwanted bacterial growth. Lane said the open ponds and the nutrient-rich water “invite all kinds of things to grow in it.” Researchers are trying new ways to control what grows in the water and provide the most ideal environment for algae.
Another challenge is the capital. The Wayne County plant is billed as a research-based pilot plant, and was funded with $6.8 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Another $1.7 million came from Ohio State University, the Ohio Coal Development Office and various other partners.
The ponds are built in the shape of a racetrack and are about 14 feet wide, with a two-foot depth and about 11 inches of water. There are four ponds, and each contains about 30,000 gallons of water. A blade-like rotary device keeps the water agitated and flowing, which is beneficial for the algae.
Collections of algae can vary from daily, to every few days. Researchers are working to increase volume and usefulness of the algae that is harvested.
The Wooster plant reportedly has the potential to make 2,000 gallons of oil a year. And researchers say compared to other crops that are used for fuel, algae requires a minimal amount of acreage.
“Algae needs only one-tenth of the land soybeans need to produce the same amount of oil,” said Yebo Li, one of Ohio State’s lead researchers on the project. “And because algae is about 40 percent lipids and 60 percent biomass, there’s also an opportunity to use this biomass that’s leftover as a fertilizer or as a feedstock for making energy through anaerobic digestion.”
Li said there’s actually a lot of ways anaerobic digesters — which use manure and food waste to produce energy — could benefit by adding algae ponds.
One benefit — the algae could potentially capture and reuse the leftover emissions from the anaerobic digester and prevent those gasses from entering the atmosphere.
Secondly, the leftover residue from growing and processing algae could be used as a feedstock for creating energy inside the digesters.
Li is working on this project at the OARDC, and in connection with Quasar Energy Group, which operates a full-scale digester inside the OARDC’s research park.
“What this allows us to do, in effect, is to have an integrated system,” explained Drew Spradling, Touchstone’s director of business development. “We can recycle nutrients and water and have a continuous stream of effluent and nutrients to help us grow the algae. The algae biomass is then used to produce renewable energy through anaerobic digestion, and that that process generates more effluent to grow more algae.”
U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, in a letter to the group, said the project shows the increasing potential for biofuel production.
He called it “another example of the sort of innovative, cutting-edge efforts we must undertake to address our nation’s pressing energy challenges.”
Dave Benfield, associate director of OARDC, said the ultimate goal is to get the technology into the marketplace, but funding is important for the research and development.
“These types of things don’t happen without partnerships,” he said. “They don’t happen without federal and state agencies that were willing to take the risks and provide the funding.”
The grant term runs through September of 2013. It’s unclear whether the project will continue into 2014 or if funding will be available.