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Algae:power Plant of the Future? (fwd)

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  • Paul Archer
    ... Date: Fri, 19 Sep 2003 05:51:27 EDT From: Gmakreas@AOL.COM To: Gmakreas@AOL.COM Subject: Algae:power Plant of the Future?
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 19, 2003
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      ---------- Forwarded message ----------
      Date: Fri, 19 Sep 2003 05:51:27 EDT
      From: Gmakreas@...
      To: Gmakreas@...
      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
      of time.

      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
      peer review.

      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
      terrorist activities.

      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.
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