May 20, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
Start-up drills for oil in algae
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that the limiting factor was the engineering side of the system," he said. "Algae can take (carbon dioxide), eat it and produce algae--that's a known fact. But if your system fails, it's a problem with your system, not the algae."
Before launching the company in 2001, Berzin was doing postdoctoral work with Payload Systems, a space engineering company, which was under contract with NASA to come up with a system to study how microgravity affects the growth of organisms in space.
Combining experts from various disciplines, the group at Payload Systems created a cell culture unit, a device about twice the size of a laptop computer, that allows scientists to change parameters that affect growth.
GreenFuel uses that cell culture unit to find the optimal algae for a particular environment. By taking samples of water and the emissions from power plants, it can rapidly fine-tune the process of finding the right algae.
"The strength of the team that worked on this NASA project was keeping these biological systems happy," Berzin said.
The company is also developing mathematical models on how to best control other inputs into the bioreactor, notably changes in light, to optimize algae growth.
Power plant emissions are piped into the triangular bioreactors along with water. The algae, which are exposed to the sun, consume carbon dioxide as part of photosynthesis. They also can break down nitrogen oxide--thereby reducing the amount of polluting gas released.
Once the algae are grown, the conversion to biodiesel is a relatively simple process, said Berzin, who calls algae "little packets of oil." Biodiesel produced from the natural oils in soybeans can be used in existing diesel engines.
Interest in the plant product as a potential replacement to petroleum-based diesel appears to be rising. In a radio address over the weekend, ahead of a trip to the Virginia Biodiesel Refinery, President Bush identified biodiesel as "an alternative fuel that will help our country achieve greater energy independence."
Curbing carbon consumption
GreenFuel's technology looks promising, but it does have some limitations.
Because it relies on solar energy to grow the algae, its products will work best in areas where there is a lot of sun. Berzin says that location has not been a problem yet.
Also, creating a large-scale operation with thousands of bioreactors
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