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NASA Envisions "Clean Energy" From Algae Grown in Waste Water

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NASA scientists have proposed an ingenious and remarkably resourceful process to produce “clean energy” biofuels, while it cleans waste water, removes carbon dioxide from the air, retains important nutrients, and does not compete with agriculture for land or freshwater. This is an excellent approach wherein clean energy is produced in addition the waste is also treated.


NASA Envisions “Clean Energy” From Algae Grown in Waste Water. Image Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

When astronauts go into space, they must bring everything they need to survive. Living quarters on a spaceship require careful planning and management of limited resources, which is what inspired the project called “Sustainable Energy for Spaceship Earth.” It is a process that produces “clean energy” biofuels very efficiently and very resourcefully.

“The reason why algae are so interesting is because some of them produce lots of oil,” said Jonathan Trent, the lead research scientist on the Spaceship Earth project at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. “In fact, most of the oil we are now getting out of the ground comes from algae that lived millions of years ago. Algae are still the best source of oil we know.”

“The inspiration I had was to use offshore membrane enclosures to grow algae. We’re going to deploy a large plastic bag in the ocean, and fill it with sewage. The algae use sewage to grow, and in the process of growing they clean up the sewage,” said Trent.

It is a simple, but elegant concept. The bag will be made of semi-permeable membranes that allow fresh water to flow out into the ocean, while retaining the algae and nutrients. The membranes are called “forward-osmosis membranes.” NASA is testing these membranes for recycling dirty water on future long-duration space missions. They are normal membranes that allow the water to run one way. With salt water on the outside and fresh water on the inside, the membrane prevents the salt from diluting the fresh water. It’s a natural process, where large amounts of fresh water flow into the sea.

Floating on the ocean’s surface, the inexpensive plastic bags will be collecting solar energy as the algae inside produce oxygen by photosynthesis. The algae will feed on the nutrients in the sewage, growing rich, fatty cells. Through osmosis, the bag will absorb carbon dioxide from the air, and release oxygen and fresh water. The temperature will be controlled by the heat capacity of the ocean, and the ocean’s waves will keep the system mixed and active.






When the process is completed, biofuels will be made and sewage will be processed. For the first time, harmful sewage will no longer be dumped into the ocean. The algae and nutrients will be contained and collected in a bag. Not only will oil be produced, but nutrients will no longer be lost to the sea. According to Trent, the system ideally is fail proof. Even if the bag leaks, it won’t contaminate the local environment. The enclosed fresh water algae will die in the ocean.

The bags are expected to last two years, and will be recycled afterwards. The plastic material may be used as plastic mulch, or possibly as a solid amendment in fields to retain moisture.

“We have to remember,” Trent said, quoting Marshall McLuhan: “we are not passengers on spaceship Earth, we are the crew.”

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