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NASA’s Algae Cultivators Could Clean Wastewater, Produce Fuel

A small-scale version of an algae cultivation system developed by NASA may pave the way for larger systems that could not only clean up wastewater, but also produce biomass for fuels and feed.

The Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae, or OMEGA system, was originally developed in seawater tanks at a California Fish and Game lab, and most recently scaled up to 450 gallon freshwater system now in use at a wastewater treatment plant in San Francisco.

Growing algae in these photobioreactors could be a solution to a number of environmental issues, from reducing land use for biofuel production to absorbing carbon dioxide, and may find a place in water treatment facilities or in bodies of water.

Algae in the system can consume nutrients and carbon dioxide from the wastewater, cleaning it for reuse, and in the process release oxygen and produce biomass that could be used as a feedstock for biofuels, for animal feed, or for fertilizer, depending on the variety of algae.

The tiny single-cell algae are the fastest growing plants on our planet, capable of doubling their population every single day and growing to harvest levels in less than a week.

According to NASA, the system, which uses floating plastic tubes of algae, didn’t pose a threat to marine animals in their set of small-scale experiments:

“We have continuous video of various prototypes of photobioreactors, day and night, over a six-month period. We see birds and sea otters interacting with the system, but it does not impact their well being. Preliminary data showed that the interactions of these animals are not problematic to the system or its functions.” – Jonathan Trent, the project scientist of the OMEGA

The aims of the OMEGA project are to investigate the technical feasibility of these unique floating algae cultivation systems, and to prepare the way for scaling the system up for commercial applications, such as wastewater treatment and the production of sustainable biofuels.

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