Ever think algae might be the next great fuel source on earth? If a small group of researchers at Goshen College have anything to say about it, it very well might be.
The idea of using algae as a viable alternative energy source — picture that layer of green slime you sometimes see floating on the top of lakes or ponds — is by no means a new one.
In reality, algae is simply the name given to a very large and diverse group of simple, typically autotrophic organisms (able to synthesize food from inorganic substances, using light or chemical energy). Such organisms can be single- or multi-cell.
For the past 40 years or so, researchers have been working to develop algae as a viable solution to the world’s increasing demand for readily available and renewable sources of food and fuel.
However, while algae’s rapid growth rate, effective energy concentration and waste remediation abilities have long been touted as a potential fix for our global energy and food production issues, efforts up to this point to successfully harvest and utilize that potential on a large scale — and in a cost effective manner – have largely been unfruitful.
And that’s where AlgaeTown comes in.
AlgaeTown is the name given to a research project underway at Goshen College, which began four years ago with a partnership between GC Professor Emeritus of Biology Stan Grove and Formco Inc. Chief Executive Officer Dave Slagel.
Through AlgaeTown, students at Goshen College and employees at Elkhart plastics company Formco Inc. are combining their research efforts with the long-term goal of discovering ways to efficiently grow and harvest algae as a potential source of sustainable food and fuel.
Aaron Kauffmann, a fifth-year senior at the college majoring in biochemistry, is project leader for the AlgaeTown project.
“I came in after about the first year, and then even before that there was a year of collecting the algae samples, growing the algae samples, and then there was pretty much two or three years of making everything work,” Kauffmann said of the project’s beginnings. “Now we’re actually collecting data, and ideally, if it keeps being collected as it has been for the last semester, we should be able to get feasibility for if it would be commercially viable.”
Feasibility or no, apparently that data is already beginning to pay off in other ways, as the team is well on its way to solving several of the major issues associated with the large-scale production of algae for use as an energy source.
“A lot of the issues we’ve encountered are a lot of the same issues that have confronted most of the industry,” Kauffmann said. “The first issue is really, how do you grow it efficiently, because it needs to be circulated somehow, and of course you need to put in enough energy to aerate it. So a lot of people have issues with growing it and putting too much energy into it that you can’t get back out.”
Kauffmann also pointed to some of the main issues associated with collecting the algae, such as using a centrifuge — an apparatus that rotates at high speed and by centrifugal force separates substances of different densities — to separate the algae from the water it is contained in.
“Using a centrifuge is very energy intensive,” Kauffmann said. “So what we’re trying to do is make a system that gives us a minimal surface area for a large volume of algae to grow.”