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.”
But of course, all of this work and experimentation and discovery does not happen by magic. It requires funding — and the more the better.
Currently, the college only provides the team with a room to house its tanks and the lighting needed for experiments, though everything else — the necessary equipment, chemicals needed for analysis, etc. — is all either borrowed from other areas of the college or paid for out-of-pocket by team members or through donor generosity.
In an effort to try and lighten that financial load a bit — just one algae-growing tank can cost $4,000 — Kauffmann recently saw an opportunity to grow support for the AlgaeTown project by partnering with the crowdfunding group RocketHub.
Through that partnership, anyone visiting the RocketHub website, www.rockethub.com, simply has to do a quick search for AlgaeTown and they will be instantly transported to a dedicated AlgaeTown web page complete with videos, a detailed description of the project, and most importantly, the option to donate.
“Right now we’re doing crowdfunding on RocketHub to try and get enough money for things like paying for student work time so we can get more people working on the project more intensely,” Kauffmann said, “And also so we can get dedicated equipment that otherwise we’d have to share or just go without.”
In addition, Kauffmann noted that meeting the group’s financial goals would also allow the AlgaeTown team the ability to gather enough needed data to apply for advanced grants — grants which he said could help pay for things such as research infrastructure and expansion, product design and potentially manufacturing.
“People can also donate directly to the college,” Kauffmann said. “Basically you just write a check and in the memo write AlgaeTown, because there is an AlgaeTown account in Goshen.”
So, all funding considerations aside, where does Kauffmann see the program heading in the future?
“Right now there are two distinct paths we could take,” Kauffmann said. “One is, it turns out to be such a significant advantage over what’s currently available that we would pursue an Indiana Small Business grant, which would allow us to reduce the cost of production and allow us to start producing it for people that would be able to see the statistics and say, ‘Oh, this is much more effective than our current system.’ Then, if it’s really good, we might start a small scale farm and see if it would be profitable, and so people could eventually start opening up uncultivatable lands to cultivation of algae.”
And the other path?
“What’s more likely is it probably won’t be quite ready anytime soon, so then we’ll have to just keep working on it until we can demonstrate that it is in fact ready,” Kauffmann said. “But with what I’ve seen from it so far, even with just this system, excluding what other people are doing on research, I think this will be a viable alternative for fuel eventually. We’re just going to have to keep working at it.”