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April 20, 2016

In the dark: Algae growth without sunlight could boost energy production

New technology being tested at Michigan State University could change the way we look at algae.

Development of the device, known as an algae photo bioreactor, is a collaborative effort between MSU and PHYCO2, a California-based algae growth and CO2 sequestration company.

During recent testing, it was found that the bioreactor could capture carbon dioxide emissions from MSU’s T.B. Simon Power Plant and turn those greenhouse gas emissions into algae.

Why is this important? Many believe that algae is the renewable, alternative energy source of the future. The technology also helps keep CO2 from escaping into the atmosphere.

This is the first time that such technology was able to capture CO2 and promote the growth of algae in an environment without sunlight, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

PHYCO2’s photo bioreactor absorbs CO2 emissions directly from the plant, creating pure algae strands that can be used for a multitude of products besides energy, everything from fertilizer and food production to pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

“Co-locating the bio-reactor with the power plant allows the process to utilize waste heat from the plant to dry and process the produced algae to further improve the energy balance,” said Susie Liu, lead researcher on the project and an MSU assistant professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering.

The photo bioreactor can efficiently optimize algae growth by managing all the growth parameters – light, CO2 and nutrients. Unlike previous open and closed systems, the PHYCO2 photo bioreactor system eliminates possible contamination from outside sources.

The team is now preparing for a second round of testing which will focus on doubling the algae density and reaching a productivity rate that is eight times greater than the first testing phase.

“The next phase of testing will look at how effective the photo bioreactor can be for power plants looking to reduce their carbon footprints, and how the technology can be implemented to absorb other airborne pollutants for further algae cultivation,” said PHYCO2 CEO William Clary.

Also part of the MSU team is Wei Liao, an associate professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering.

By: Tom Oswald