NASA researchers are attempting what many in the alternative fuel realm are: algae biofuel. NASA has developed plastic membranes in which to grow algae to be harvested for biofuel. NASA plans on attempting their plastic membranes as a full-scale project in the near future in the Pacific ocean.
The researchers plan to use nutrient-rich waste water as their growing media for the algae. The waste water will be placed in the membranes along with the algae. The algae will act as a waste water purifier, which is an added perk to the method. Once in the ocean, the salinity of the ocean will cause the water in the membrane to be drawn out. The nutrients and algae, however, will be left behind in the membranes.
After a certain period of time, the membranes would then be collected and recycled. Per acre, algae produces more oil than many other crops, which is perceived as a potential gold mine of oil by some. The program of algae production has already been proven in laboratories and is expected to be attempted at a larger scale in California.
The city of Santa Cruz has announced that it will be allowing the project access to their municipal waste water. Money to fund the project may be made possible by a $800,000 alternative energy grant, which this project has a potential of receiving courtesy of the state of California.
A researcher working on the project, Jonathan Trent, believes the project shows a great deal of large-scale potential. In addition to relieving the dependence the U.S. has on foreign oil, the algae farming would also help to remove carbon from the atmosphere. In addition, algae is simple to grow and would not take up valuable land area to grow. Obviously an added benefit of this particular system is the extra purification of municipal waste water.
However, there are many who are skeptical that the project would actually work. Carmela Cuomo, who is a marine scientists at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, is also researching algae biofuel. Cuomo has many concerns with the project coming to fruition. The main issue is getting enough oil for it to actually reduce dependence on non-biofuels.
Another major issue Cuomo finds with the project is the waste water as the growing media. Cuomo does not see treated waste water as having enough nutrients to properly grow algae. In addition, Cuomo fears waste water that is nutrient-rich enough would potentially threaten ocean life if the membranes were to break. Also, for the algae to grow properly it would have to be grown close to the surface, which could become an issue for boaters and the farm itself.