NASA catches the Biofuel wave with an innovative new approach

Paul Rossi - Contributing Writer
Posted on Saturday 23rd May 2009
Residents of Santa Cruz, California might cringe at the prospect of plastic bags filled with sewage floating off their coastline. However, such a sight may mark a significant milestone towards meeting our nation's environmental sustainability goals. Jonathan Trent, a scientist at NASA's nearby Ames research center, has recently won municipal support for a pilot demonstration of an offshore project that will grow algae for biofuel production, while simultaneously breaking down and disposing of sewage. Called "Sustainable Energy for Spaceship Earth", Trent's innovation is to mix algae with sewage and freshwater, and then float hexagonal plastic packets of the mixture on the ocean's surface. Exposed to sunlight, the algae grows, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The permeable nature of these plastic bags, initially developed by NASA to recycle astronaut's waste water, also allows fresh water to escape into the ocean while preventing saltwater from entering and killing the algae. The natural movement of the ocean's waves keep the algae mixed and healthy, and once fully grown, the algae can sold to be processed for its oil content, which can be used as biofuel to meet our country's substantial transport needs. Designed to last up to three years, NASA's plastic bags can be recycled as plastic mulch or chopped up and used to improve soil quality and help retain moisture. Initially seeded by a $250,000 investment from Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Trent is also hopeful that he will win an $800,000 grant from the Calfornia Energy commission in the coming weeks. Although much more venture capital will be needed, this cash infusion will greatly assist his chances of putting his plan in to commercial production, should the pilot project prove successful. Considered a "third generation biofuel", harvesting algae offers significant benefits over other agricultural options, such as corn (ethanol), soy, and palm products. Compared to these alternatives, algae provides 30 times the energy per acre. According to, an industry website, "it takes a whole football field of soybeans to produce the energy harnessed from algae in an area the size of a two car garage". Additionally, since algae is not consumed for food, its energy use does not affect the market price of foodstuffs and does not contribute to food shortages that adversely affect the struggling populations of developing nations. The biofuel production aspect of Spaceship Earth's process probably won't be cost-effective on its own, Trent admits. "But," he goes on to say, "we're functioning on at least three different levels: making the products – fuel, fertilizers – then wastewater processing and carbon sequestration. The economic model becomes more reasonable." Environmentally-conscious Santa Cruzians can comfortably feel pride rather than dismay at Trent's pilot project, knowing that it could blossom into a practical and sustainable alternative to fossil fuel extraction.

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