CHARLOTTE –In moderation, and carefully applied to fields, livestock feces has for millennia been an invaluable farm resource. This is not breaking news. More recently (for decades), methane has been coaxed from manure and soaked cattle bedding to fuel cooking fires and electric generators…
Last week, the reek of concentrated cow excrement drove another point home.
Dairy cattle leavings are oozing with potential as a growth medium for oil-producing algae, Anju Dahiya, co-founder of Burlington-based GSR Solutions, told a small gathering at Nordic Farms in Charlotte.
But don’t hold your breath, she cautioned.
If her announcement resembled an experiment in progress, that’s exactly what it was.
Amid bubbling flasks of green liquid and plastic tubing, Dahiya and her colleagues demonstrated the direction of their work.
The show-and-tell news conference took place in a side room of the milking barn.
The audience cast about for signs of a breakthrough. But no sparks flew; no circuit boards flashed.
If the green flasks smelled of success, the scent was masked by that of the all-powerful dairy herd next door.
Attempts to corral algae into providing fuel for our furnaces, cars and airplanes have been time-consuming and expensive.
Despite the cellular simplicity of algae, they are complex organisms, and scientists must baby them somewhat.
Most strains delight in warm temperatures and direct light, Dahiya said. Colonies tend to monopolize a water body’s surface, shading and thinning out deeper vegetation. They contribute to oxygen-robbing decay in lakes.
The mechanical agitators and aeration tubes in Dahiya’s labs disrupt that cycle.
Are the algae bothered? The question is worth pursuing: Many strains are most prolific with oil-making when they are stressed by sub-optimal growing conditions.
That tendency, so far, has subverted any quick, industrial-sized ramping-up of production, Dahiya said. She has a patent application filed on a process that works around that kink.
Dahiya also has found promise in native algae. Some, she said, “are very well represented,” even in icy lake water.
Ideally, native varieties would be cultivated in much larger tubs, or “raceways,” for oil extraction on the farm, GSR lab technician John Patterson said.
Until then, he’ll continue scanning his flock for prodigious oil-makers.
Among the dyes Patterson uses on algae samples are ones that bear exotic names such as “Nile Red” and “Bodippy Blue.” But the algae strains are mostly down-home.
Why favor the locals?
For the same reason lake stewards bridle at the introduction of invasive plant and animal species: They all too often proliferate in the absence of natural checks and balances.
“Non-local strains might do very, very well out there,” Patterson said. “But they might not belong.”
The virtues of algal terroir expanded from there.
Some folk at the gathering suggested that algae ranching might be a perfect fit for Vermont’s decentralized agricultural economy, where transportation costs for heating fuel, diesel and propane have perennially whittled away at bottom lines.
“We don’t know yet if the algae project will work out,” said Matt Cota, executive director of Vermont Fuel Dealers Association. “Let’s just say we have a significant interest in its success. And if it does work — wow!”
Another booster of oleaginous (oil-rich) algae, Ted Brady, Vermont’s director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said reducing energy costs on farms has become his agency’s number-one priority.
Algae’s promise in the Green Mountain State warranted a $51,000 USDA grant last year for Dahiya’s research.
“We’re here to prove the concept that we can power farms with fuels derived from sources within a 3-to-4 mile radius,” Brady said.
Funding for a slightly-larger-scale project, he added, is still in the bureaucratic works.
Beasties of burden
Wednesday’s algae-to-oil contingent included more modest funders, quasi-official advisers, GSR’s technical staff and Clark Hinsdale, who volunteered his farm to be on the vanguard.
Fiddlehead Brewing, located just up Shelburne Road, was represented by several effervescing, amber-colored flasks — living, breathing cocktails of algae and post-fermentation cast-offs of an IPA.
Vermont’s burgeoning beer production, it turns out, might help power the distribution of bottles and cans.
In a not-so-distant outbuilding, Hinsdale’s methane-to-electricity generator sat idle. The net-metered dynamo’s cost of operation only intermittently justified cranking it up, he said. Technicians at GSR have suggested to him that pre-treatment by algae might give the digester the equivalent of an octane boost.
Cultivating manure’s microbiology might signify a return to early industrial-era farms, where machinery was pushed and pulled by locally raised beasts of burden, Hinsdale said.
This time around, the beasts might be considerably smaller.
Next to the silenced methane generator, half-a-dozen chest-high tubes of algae gurgled through his herd’s slurry.
Speaking above the hum of aeration pumps and agitators, Dahiya outlined algae’s virtues:
• The process of harvesting algae-oils is far less disruptive than mining coal, petroleum or natural gas.
• Like fossil fuels, algae-oil releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when it is burned. Unlike long-dead fossil fuel sources, living algae sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, its own liquid “feed stock” and even flue-gas.
• A byproduct of algae “reactors” is cleaner water, and a phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizer with a slower (more lake-friendly) release of nutrients than manure.
You paid what at the pump?
The high cost of production will remain a sticking point, maybe for decades, said Todd Campbell, energy advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
Recently developed North American sources of petroleum, such as tar-sand oil, shale oil and natural gas, might conspire to keep fossil fuel prices low for a while longer, Campbell said — but at the expense of climate stability.
His agency, along with the Department of Defense, view less-disruptive fuels as a measure of national security.
On a kilowatt-per-acre basis, Campbell said, algae delivers the goods more effectively than any other biofuel. A recent joint military exercise demonstrated that algae oil can keep a fleet steaming and fighters aloft — but at the unsustainable rate of $27 per gallon.
Your local refinery
The goal, everyone present agreed, is cost parity with fossil fuels, as well as carbon neutrality — the absorption and release of greenhouse gases at a steady rate.
The financial and environmental balance sheet is “a tantalizing possibility,” said Richard Altman, director emeritus of the nonprofit Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative.
Algae-oil’s carbon emissions “can’t please everyone,” Altman added. But consumers — passengers — might catch a more direct glimpse of how each of us pollute if we live on (or near) an algae refinery.
“The goal is to bring end-customers into closer involvement with production, with the entire production chain,” he said. “And the goal here is to get on the case immediately.”
Hooray for hydrocarbons?
The case has been open for decade after decade. Researchers around the world are still struggling for a formula to farm one of the Earth’s oldest organisms for the benefit of energy-hungry humanity.
In April 2013, one algae-minded business, Burlington-based Carbon Harvest Energy, went bankrupt after years of promising progress.
Mark Blanchard, an energy consultant and member of the nonprofit Vermont Biosciences Alliance, sounded a cautionary note at last week’s gathering.
Algae-oil production needs to be carefully matched to a local economic and cultural landscape, Blanchard said.
In Vermont, he added, “this needs to be scaled up, but not necessarily to a huge scale. This project suggests that there’s a sweet spot. We just don’t know where it is yet.”
In the glory days of industrialization, inventions required “massive investments in order to be produced efficiently,” Blanchard continued. “Those arguments are eroding.”
He continued: Despite the environmental casualties inflicted by humankind’s unprecedented burning of hydrocarbons, those potent molecules (including hydrocarbons in algae-derived oil) have the proved advantage of energy density — a huge potential for work, or heat, contained in a relatively small tank.
“It’s when you’re forced to extract hydrocarbons from the ground — that’s bad news,” Blanchard said.
Our other algae
Folks familiar with summer plant growth on lakes probably are familiar with blue-green algae, an organism that takes on a paint-like consistency as it decays and can produce a sickening toxin.
Many scientists, though, eshew the “algae” label for that pesky indicator of nutrient overloads in a water body. The organism is more accurately described as a photosynthesizing cyanobacteria — something of a stripped-down cousin of true algae.
Remarkably, the photosynthesizing cells (choloplasts) in many “regular” algae closely resemble cyanobacteria. A well-established theory contends cyanobacteria long ago took up permanent residence in the larger organisms in a process known as endosymbiosis.
Photo caption: Colonies of local algae thrive in an aerated cow-manure medium at Nordic Farms in Charlotte.(Photo: JOEL BANNER BAIRD/FREE PRESS)
View original article at: Algae oil touted as Vermont’s next fuel crop