Turning algae into fuel?
Building a windmill on Tangier Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay? Setting wind turbines miles off the Virginia Beach coast?
The ideas might sound futuristic, but they are the primary alternative-energy projects that the state will support with $1.5 million in research grants, to be awarded next week.
The grants represent the first investment by state government in the work of a newly formed group of university scientists, called the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium.
The headquarters of the green-thinking coalition is Old Dominion University. An ODU scientist, Patrick G. Hatcher, is the executive director.
Hatcher is also a key player in the algae-into-biofuel project, expected to receive a third of the state money, about $500,000, when divvied up after Sunday.
In an interview this week, the laid-back Hatcher, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and deck shoes, described how “it is absolutely possible” to grow algae in treated sewage, extract fatty oils from the weedy slime, then convert the oils into clean-burning fuel.
“We’ll get oil, for sure,” Hatcher said. “The key is efficiency: Can we do this in a cost-effective way?”
Wind energy will be the other focus of the state-aided research, to be led by a Virginia Tech scientist, George Hagerman.
While cautioning that “we have absolutely no plans to build a wind farm off Virginia Beach,” Hagerman said he and other researchers have selected a spot about 15 miles east of Back Bay in Virginia Beach to study what it would take to develop such an offshore resource.
Virginia has “unique features” in support of wind energy, Hagerman said. They include strong and consistent winds fairly close to shore; a well-developed power grid to transmit energy; proximity to major population centers; and minimal probability of a major hurricane strike.
With the state money, researchers intend to create a detailed map and meet with as many stakeholders as possible – including Navy personnel, fishermen, environmentalists, kayakers and local officials – in preparation for any future wind initiative.
“We’d like to create the right climate, do the legwork, for anyone interested to pursuing a project,” Hagerman said. Wind developments elsewhere have fizzled because of local opposition that, Hagerman believes, might have been avoided with more up-front dialogue.
A test site where an actual turbine or two might be built is Tangier Island, a commercial fishing hub in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, near the Maryland border.
A James Madison University scientist, Jonathan Miles, is working on the Tangier proposal and has met with island residents and officials to determine their interest in becoming guinea pigs.
“It might even become a training center for us,” Hagerman said.
The Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium was created last year by the General Assembly. Its members include ODU, JMU, Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Hampton University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Norfolk State.
Lawmakers, however, did not approve any money for the group last year.
But this year, led by state Sen. Frank W. Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, legislators set aside $1.5 million for research grants and asked participating schools to work together in choosing worthy projects.
Three of the four projects selected this spring focus on wind; algae is the fourth.
Wagner hopes the consortium can become a magnet for private companies wanting to invest in green power in Virginia, as well as for federal grants supporting alternative-energy projects.
The Bush administration has signaled its intent to appropriate billions of dollars for such research, as the United States seeks to wea n itself from oil, especially foreign oil.
“This gets us in the game,” Wagner said. “This is about the future, about creating opportunities while making ourselves more energy independent.”
Hatcher, the consortium ‘s director, said he first explored biofuels in the late 1970s. At the time, the U.S. government was still stinging from the OPEC oil embargo and was seeking alternative-energy proposals from academia.
Money and interest soon dried up, Hatcher recalled, as gasoline prices stabilized and Middle East politics calmed.
Only now, as foreign wars continue and concerns about global warming increase, is the federal government again seeking alternative-energy answers.
ODU researchers could find only one place where algae is being grown in treated sewage, then converted into biofuel: New Zealand.
The envisioned facility in Norfolk, at full tilt, could make about 200 gallons of biofuel a day, Hatcher said. The product could be sold as a vehicle fuel or burned at a power plant to generate electricity.
Hatcher’s chief research partner, Margaret Mulholland, also an ODU scientist, already is growing the specialized algae in her campus lab.
The species, Botryococcus braunii, is best known as a nuisance weed in Australian lakes, but it exists naturally in Virginia and elsewhere on the mid-Atlantic coast, Mulholland said.
The species seems so right for the experiment, she said, because of its high fat content – meaning it can produce more oil than corn, soybeans or other biofuel staples.
Mulholland will oversee the algae’s “harvesting” at a sewage plant operated by the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, located next door to ODU on the Elizabeth River.
She said the environmental benefits could extend far beyond clean, domestic fuel.
Raising algae, she said, will soak up nutrients in wastewater at the sewage plant, thus helping the Chesapeake Bay, which suffers from excessive nutrients discharged by such treatment plants.
Furthermore, the algae will need carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to global warming. So, Mulholland said, if power plants that emit carbon dioxide could pump their gases into the algae tanks for food, they effectively would be fighting global warming.
“To me, it’s the most attractive solution,” she said. “We could help the Bay, reduce our carbon footprint, and create a biofuel source with existing resources and infrastructure. I mean, how efficient is that?”
By Scott Harper
30 June 2007
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