WOOSTER, Ohio — Visit Yebo Li’s Ohio State University lab right now and you will find an array of glass tubes filled with a light-green substance, endlessly bubbling inside a growth chamber. It’s algae.
The same algae that later this summer will be growing in ponds at a Wooster farm, generating thousands of gallons of oil that will be turned into renewable fuel.
Down the road, this green stuff may just be the building block of a new green industry in Ohio.
Tomorrow’s fuel? Li, a biosystems engineer with the university’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), is working with West Virginia-based Touchstone Research Laboratory in the development of innovative technology for efficiently and profitably growing algae in open ponds for production of fuels and other high-value, bio-based products.
Also partnering in this unique research and business-incubation venture is Cedar Lanes Farms, a nursery and greenhouse operation located just a few miles from OARDC’s Wooster campus. Other project participants include engineering firm GZA GeoEnvironmental of Cincinnati and SRS Energy of Dexter, Mich.
High oil count
“Algae needs only one-tenth of the land soybeans need to produce the same amount of oil,” said Li.
“And because algae is about 40 percent lipids (oil) and 60 percent biomass, there’s also an opportunity to use this biomass that’s leftover after oil extraction as a fertilizer or as a feedstock for making energy through anaerobic digestion.”
In fact, it was anaerobic digestion — the process of creating biogas from organic materials such as manure and food-processing waste inside a biodigester — that brought together OARDC and Touchstone, said Drew Spradling, Touchstone’s director of business development.
“We initially came to OARDC because of its expertise in anaerobic digestion and its partnership with one of the leaders in anaerobic digestion, and the fact that the staff here, we felt, is one of the best in the nation,” explained Spradling.
“We wanted to investigate how anaerobic digestion could generate usable renewable energy from our low-value product (algae biomass) that’s remaining after our process.”
He said one of the unique advantages of using anaerobic digestion with algae-production process is that you can take the residual matter and recover nutrients and water, as well as renewable energy.
That was two years ago. By now, this partnership has yielded much more than a way to utilize the algae-production process’ leftover biomass.
Li discovered that the nutrient-rich liquid effluent remaining after a biodigester is done turning waste into methane can be used to feed the algae, instead of commercial fertilizers. So Li is now growing algae in his lab using the liquid effluent, perfecting a formula that will then be tested in the field.
One big cycle
“What this allows us to do, in effect, is to have an integrated system,” Spradling said. “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 process generates more effluent to grow more algae.”
Out of the lab
Funded by close to $7 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, Touchstone will be testing this “integrated system” in four algae-producing ponds at Cedar Lane Farms — with an annual production capacity of some 2,000 gallons of oil, which will be turned into fuel. Construction is scheduled to begin this summer.
For the algae project, carbon dioxide generated by that system will be pumped into the ponds, serving two “green” purposes — keeping up to 60 percent flue gas CO2 from being released into the environment and providing algae with something all plants need to adequately grow.
In addition to capturing CO2 and using anaerobic digestion effluent to maximize algae growth, the project will employ another technology developed by Touchstone exclusively for algae systems — a phase-changing material that covers a majority of the pond surface to regulate daily temperature, control the infiltration of invasive species, and reduce evaporation (a big problem with open-pond algae systems).
Spradling said the company hopes to use the pilot plant to attract investors, license the technology to others in the algae industry.
“Ultimately, we are trying to reduce the cost enough to compete with petroleum fuels, tackling challenges facing the algae industry to make it competitive.”
Touchstone has already created several jobs in Ohio during the initial phase of the algae project, and will create up to six additional jobs once the testing phase begins later this year.
Spradling said the company has plans to lease a new office and a lab at Cedar Lane Farms within the next six months, and hopefully expand its operations to the BioHio Research Park in the future.