Algae:power Plant of the Future? (fwd)
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Date: Fri, 19 Sep 2003 05:51:27 EDT
Subject: Algae:power Plant of the Future?
Algae: Power Plant of the Future? By John Gartner
Researchers seeking another energy source to ease the world's
dependency on fossil fuels may have found a small answer to a big
A microscopic green algae -- known to scientists as Chlamydomonas
reinhardtii, and to regular folk as pond scum -- was discovered more
than 60 years ago to split water into hydrogen and oxygen under
controlled conditions. A recent breakthrough in controlling the
algae's hydrogen yield has prompted a Berkeley, California, company
to try to be first to commercialize production.
Energy experts -- who disagree on the when, but not the if, of the
eventual depletion of fossil fuels -- are predicting that within
decades the world will switch to a utopian hydrogen economy, where
energy will be abundant, inexpensive and nonpolluting.
Hydrogen is used by fuel cells to generate electricity without
generating those nasty greenhouse gases.
Hydrogen can be extracted from fossil fuels, but currently it's more
expensive than directly using oil or natural gas, so this method is
only a temporary fix. Water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen
through electrolysis, but that requires electricity generated from
fossil fuels, or from renewable sources such as wind or solar that
are even more costly.
The potential of algae to be used as microscopic power plants was
first discovered by Hans Gaffron, a German researcher who fled the
Nazi party and came to the University of Chicago in the 1930s.
Gaffron observed in 1939 that the algae would for a then-unknown
reason sometimes switch from producing oxygen to instead creating
hydrogen, but only for a short period of time.
For 60 years, researchers tried to harness the power potential of
algae, without success.
A breakthrough came in 1999 when University of California at Berkeley
professor Tasios Melis, along with researchers from the National
Renewable Energy Lab, discovered that depriving the algae of sulfur
and oxygen would enable it to produce hydrogen for sustained periods
Melis was working on research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
investigating how plants repaired themselves when damaged by
conditions such as lack of sulfur, an ingredient necessary to make
Melis found that algae must eventually be supplied sulfur to survive,
but he was able to repeatedly switch hydrogen production on and off
by changing the algae's environment.
Melis launched a company, Melis Energy, in 2001 to try to
commercialize a technique that harnesses algae's ability to turn
sunlight into hydrogen. In the fall of 2001, the company built a
bioreactor containing 500 liters of water and algae that can produce
up to 1 liter of hydrogen per hour. A siphoning system extracts the
hydrogen, which is stored in its gaseous state.
The company is continuing to refine the process and improve its
reliability, while also searching for investors so that it can
increase production volume.
Melis was tight-lipped about projecting a date when the technology
could be used for mass production.
He said that his team of researchers at Berkeley has thus far only
been able to achieve 10 percent of the algae's theoretical production
capacity, but in the near future he will publish an advancement for
Once the process reaches a 50 percent yield, Melis said it would be
cost-competitive with fossil-fuel energy.
Because the algae require ample sunlight, Melis said the Southwest
United States would be a likely region to build production
Being able to cost-effectively produce hydrogen from a renewable
source "would grow demand for hydrogen extensively," said T. Nejat
Veziroglu, president of the International Association for Hydrogen
Veziroglu said that if the United States had a Manhattan Project-like
commitment to developing hydrogen production, it could create the
necessary infrastructure within 20 years.
"If half the money being spent on terrorism was spent on hydrogen
production, we'd have a permanent solution to terrorism," Veziroglu
said, referring to the link between some oil-producing countries and
Melis is one of many researchers around the world vying to reach
hydrogen nirvana. Projects are also underway in England, Germany,
Russia, France and New Zealand.