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DIY - Grow algae at home. 15

There's a new trend sprouting among local off-gridders, urban farmers, DIY scientists and Burning Man fanatics: home-grown algae.

This movement is being spearheaded by Aaron Baum, 40, a Harvard and Stanford graduate who researches algae farming for NASA. Two years ago, he also created what he believes is the world's first community algae lab. The Berkeley Shipyard-based project consisted of 16 55-gallon tanks of algae but became so time consuming that when Baum traveled the world last year to visit algae farms and attend algae lectures, he shuttered it.

The latest iteration of the San Rafael resident's algae revolution is teaching people to create personal photobioreactors, or 5-gallon algae tanks. To that end, Baum has recently launched a series of workshops on raising spirulina, a strain of algae that's relatively easy to grow and harvest.

There are more than 50,000 strains of algae, so Baum advises against foraging for wild, unidentified algae which can be toxic. Spirulina is the strain that's been most evaluated for its safety and health benefits. Baum explains all this in detail at the workshops, which typically draw between one and two dozen people.

Spirulina's a superfood that's high in complete protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. It's normally sold in pill or powder form, tastes like seaweed (a turnoff for many) and costs about $80 a pound. But Baum says that when it's fresh, it tastes "light, creamy and buttery." He suggests eating fresh spirulina uncooked (to maintain its nutrients) in soups, smoothies and dips.
Highly affordable

Raising spirulina requires a complex mix of nutrients, acid/base balance, temperature and other physical requirements. But Baum says it's the food of the future because it can grow in ultra-compact areas, cleans greenhouse gases, and reproduces in a matter of hours so it can be harvested every day.

While laboratory algae tanks can cost tens of thousands of dollars, Baum's seven-hour workshops costs $150 and hand-built tanks go for $150, pretty much at cost.

"I think everyone was pretty thrilled, excited to get growing. It seemed like a lot more possible for the common person, even with no science background," said Katia Sussman, 26, who attended a recent workshop in Berkeley.

Baum's so serious about making algae accessible that he's offered to help workshop participants install their tanks for free if they run into trouble.

Baum wants to continue to form the Linux of algae - a DIY community that uses low-cost materials and shares information. He has hundreds of people on his mailing list and fields inquiries from as far as Italy and Japan.

"Aaron could've made a lot of money but he's committed to doing it open source," said Mike Gittelsohn, a software engineer and fellow algae-phile. "A lot of companies want to keep their knowledge proprietary."
Technological impasse

Baum, a calm man with hoop earrings, a chinstrap beard and a self-described "nerdhawk" (a shaved head with a tuft of hair at the nape of the neck) had a circuitous journey to his algae obsession. His father was a psychology professor who wanted to get away from capitalism so the family lived on a 2-acre farm in New Hampshire with a solar home, chickens, pigs and goats. Baum's favorite pastime was exploring the woods.

At 14, he attended a college-level astronomy course, which sparked his passion for physics. Baum studied the subject at Harvard and enrolled in an applied physics doctoral program at Stanford where he had a full scholarship as a National Science Fellow. At the Farm, he developed a new electron source for electron beam microscopy and lithography, and earned multiple patents.

Upon graduating in 1997, Baum continued developing his research at Intevac, but three years later his technology reached an impasse and he came to a realization: "I was working my butt off to make computer chips go faster," he said.

He had made money through real estate, so Baum quit.
Musical ball invented

For the next seven years, he was an artist and his work culminated in the "boing" a large inflatable ball-shaped structure with sensors that created music when people bounced on it. His work appeared everywhere from dance troupe performances to the semifinals of ABC's "American Inventor."

But Baum missed the intellectual nature of science and the opportunity to help people, so in 2006, he spent several months researching which scientific topics could most benefit humanity.

"He's really dedicated to scientific truth and he's really into serving the planet," said Amanda Johnsen, Baum's girlfriend of three years.

The one topic that kept resurfacing was algae.

Baum and a small group built an algae exhibit for Burning Man in 2007. The installation consisted of a trailer hosting 16 algae tanks that consumed the exhaust of a generator. A NASA employee was so inspired by Baum's work that when he discovered NASA had an algae project, he quickly joined it and gave Baum a call. Baum advised the group and is now contracted to work on NASA's Omega project, which studies algae farming to produce biofuel, fertilizer and food.

Aside from NASA and the workshop, Baum is busy writing a novel about global warming and designing an inexpensive photoprobe to measure the health and density of algae. If the probe pans out, he may launch a company around the product.

But he will always remain dedicated to getting algae to the masses. "Algae is an incredible resource we haven't tapped," he says. "Even people with no dirt can grow fresh food for themselves."

Algae workshop: Led by Aaron Baum. April 17. $150 for workshop only, $300 for workshop plus photo-bioreactor kit. 1600 Sand Hill Road, Palo Alto. algaelab.com.


Tue April 06 2010 02:42:29 AM by Manohar 9814 views

Comments - 10

  • Manohar wrote:
    Tue April 06 2010 02:46:50 AM

    Some one from India will soon tie up with this algaelab and start spreading. Great !!
    I would like to see what the kit looks like.
    I would also like to know
    a. what will it take to invite him to deliver lectures in India
    b. can the lecture be done by others.
    c. can the kit be done at low cost from india?
    d. can we mobilise governments in India to support this programme.
    e. can all cities mandate the citizens buy this kit and grow algae, in India ?
    f. what will be the reduction in pollution levels / CO2 if each hh grows 1 gm of algae a day?

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  • Manohar wrote:
    Tue April 06 2010 11:49:35 AM

    5 gallon tank will be of the size of the bubble distilled water bottle that most of us have in the offices for drinking water. Some even have it at home.
    Can someone tell me how much of spirulina algae we can make in a 5 gallon tank in a day ?

    The photo bioreactor kit which Aoron Baum, sells at $ 150 can be probably made in India for Rs 3000/-

    The current price of spirulina is $ 175 per kg. If it can be grown at 1 gm a day from the kit above,
    One gram works out to more than 75 Rs per day.
    Even assuming that the price of spirulina falls 5 times and sells at $ 35 per kg, it is a viable proposition.
    We need to know as to how much of algae can be grown in day.
    Is there an additional feature that we can make to the kit to suit to the indian conditions ?

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  • Manohar wrote:
    Tue April 06 2010 11:51:44 AM

    May be one could first sell the kit to all the corporates because, it is in keeping with the CSR of many companies and
    a. easy to train the buyers
    b. sales efforts are focussed as compared to selling to individuals
    c. many training aspects can be done over the net
    d. those who bought may gift the same to their poorer relatives/ servants/ neighbours etc., Viral

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  • Manohar wrote:
    Tue April 06 2010 11:52:33 AM

    Ofcourse we need to know how much CO2 is absorbed by the algae grown in the 5 gallon tank.
    We need to know, what the operating expenses are.
    Can the rural folks have more 5 gallon tanks and make more money ?

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  • Mahesh wrote:
    Thu April 08 2010 03:52:47 PM

    The proposition is good, but the cost of the fine quality spirulina, QC approved and certified will cost almost Rs 1/ gram........... How is that model cost effective?

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  • Manohar wrote:
    Sat April 10 2010 04:45:02 AM

    Rs 1 per gram is a steal mahesh!

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  • Mahesh wrote:
    Tue April 20 2010 04:44:47 AM

    No..... I'm serious, give me 1000 Rs, i'll get 1kg of ,quality checked, assured and govt approved spirulina........

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  • Han2754 wrote:
    Sun May 02 2010 11:54:16 PM

    hi manohar
    I ever seen video on youtube people in india culture chlorella for food .If they can culture
    certainly they culture any kind of algae
    .They have big farm.

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  • Manohar wrote:
    Mon May 03 2010 03:45:17 AM

    No Han, I havent seen it.
    I have heard that SHG ie self help group women grow algae.
    My argument is if Aaron Baum the stanford and harvard grad can make the wellfed americans grow algae at home and ask them to eat it, WHY not me in India ?
    I extend the same logic to algae for fuel and algae for biomass.

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  • Mahesh wrote:
    Mon May 03 2010 12:57:23 PM

    Yes, that is possible and near by chennai and madurai farmers grow spirulina... For spirulina, since it's a food product, i have a fear about the contamination. But if it is for fuels, then, no question...I suggest and request all Indians to grow some algae on their roof tops or waste lands......

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