NASA applies space technology to produce algae-based fuel

Posted: Thursday 10th December 2009

OMEGA concept explained during Algae Congress in Hamburg.

NASA has been applying space technology to a process that links the production of algae-based fuel with an inexpensive method of sewage treatment. This is done by growing algae in plastic containers filled with sewage floating in the ocean. NASA has createdplastic osmotic containers that grow algae, which produce oil. The benefits of this new method are that it does not compete with agriculture for land, freshwater, or fertilizer, which means that this method to make biofuels does not have to compete with land used for food purposes.

Another advantage is the fact that the method cleanswastewater during the biofuels creation process, which means it can help remediate dead zones. Combining these benefits with algae products such as biofuel, fertilizer, and animal feed, makes this new technology cost-competitive with land-based production methods for algae biofuels.Scientist Jonathan Trent,lead researcher on the project at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, will explain this method and its advantages in more detail during his unofficial visit to the second International Algae Congress in Hamburg in one week’s time. This two-day congress, on 1 and 2 December, deals withphototrophic aquaculture, microalgae, cyanobacteria, and microcrops. JonathanTrentwill present NASA’s new technology on Tuesday, the 1st of December.

The NASA process is relatively simple. It starts with algae being placed in sewage-filled plastic bags. These bags are called OMEGA which stands for "offshore membrane enclosures for growing algae". The OMEGA bags are semi permeable membranes that NASA developed to recycle astronauts' wastewater on long space missions. In this case, the membranes let freshwater exit but prevent saltwater from entering.

Jonathan Trent says the effort has three goals that will demonstrate to the world: ‘firstly it is possible to produce sustainable quantities of biofuels that can replace the use of fossil fuels without competing for resources and land needed for food production. Secondly these valued products are produced, while at the same time they help cleanse municipal wastewater and remediate dead zones such as those in the Baltic Sea and thirdly it is possible to produce products, clean the oceans, and at the same time remove the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere’.

This presentation and the others over the two days promise to create a mix of interesting viewpoints and success stories on algae-based fuel, phototrophic aquaculture, microalgae, cyanobacteria and microcrops. Pre-registrations from delegates representing 20 countries confirm the interest in and the importance of the applications of this microscopic organism.




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