NASA has recently been very interested not only in space exploration but as well in the rising energy costs and climate change. NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, has developed a system of growing algae in waste-water for the biofuel production.Algae are grown offshore, in flexible plastic bags, in areas where cities dump their wastewater. The algae will also have the important role of cleaning the wastewater feeding on nutrients from the sewage. The cleaned freshwater will be released into the ocean through forward-osmosis membranes in the sides of the plastic bags. The fully-grown algae will be harvested and the process of transforming them into fuel is very similar to making ethanol from corn.
Algae are producing more fuel than any other organic compound (between 1,000-4000 gallons per acre each year) compared to just few hundreds of gallons per acre from oil palm, sunflower and soybeans. The developed system called OMEGA is far more efficient as does not use land to grow the algae. But the plastic bags could represent an issue as they have a known weakness if exposed a longer period of time to ultraviolet rays. This issue could be solved very soon by NASA, by replacing the plastic bags with biodegradable bags made from algae-derived oil compounds.
Jonathan Trent, a bioengineer at NASA Ames Research Center is very confident that after finding the right algae strains, the OMEGA project could be adopted by several countries around the world. There were also some discussions with some European companies to build a system that will combine algae-growing with a gigantic offshore wind farm. The wind farm could provide the necessary light the algae require to grow during the night hours.
Algae Systems company of Carson City, Nevada, has already licensed the NASA technology and will deploy its own algae bioreactors somewhere off the coast of Tampa Bay, Florida. Let’s just hope the technology of algae production will be much more cheaper in the close future.