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Algae Use for Carbon Capture – Virginia

image credit: https://www.vims.edu/features/research/chap_algal_fuel.php
Julian Silk's picture
Adjunct Professor
  • Member since 2010
  • 277 items added with 7,622 views
  • Dec 15, 2022
  • 374 views

People are familiar with algal blooms as hazards for water use.  In Virginia, algal blooms have recently been reported in a number of sites.  The most prominent sites were the Shenandoah River

(as in https://www.bayjournal.com/news/pollution/potentially-toxic-algae-mats-return-to-shenandoah-river/article_ba59f35a-23e5-11ed-95ce-6bd049e67f53.html)

and  Lake Anna

(as in  https://www.whsv.com/2022/08/11/virginia-declares-more-waterways-damaged-by-harmful-algal-blooms/)

As bad as these pollution incidents are, they do show that algae can grow and survive in relatively cold climates, including that of Virginia.

Algae have been studied a number of times to work as carbon capture devices to produce raw materials for energy use over the years.  Some of the latest studies are in

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33229076/

https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2017/09/f37/algae_cultivation_for_carbon_capture_and_utilization_workshop.pdf

and

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2772782322000420

New products and processes are being developed, in the U.S. and abroad, to make commercial use of the algae after they have captured CO2.  See the National Academy of Sciences report, discussed at

https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2021/12/new-report-assesses-the-feasibility-cost-and-potential-impacts-of-ocean-based-carbon-dioxide-removal-approaches-recommends-u-s-research-program

Another potential new use for algae is to develop cement.  “Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have developed a way of using algae to create carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative concrete.

The researchers use biogenic limestone that is grown by algae in place of quarried limestone to make portland cement, concrete's key and most carbon-intensive ingredient.”  See

https://www.dezeen.com/2022/07/29/algae-grown-limestone-route-carbon-negative-concrete-architecture-news/#:~:text=Researchers%20at%20the%20University%20of,and%20most%20carbon%2Dintensive%20ingredient.

The National Geographic also reports that algae can be grown without sunlight in

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/six-environment-wins-2022-offer-hope

This may allow more widespread development of algae for commercial use. 

In addition, the Inflation Reduction Act has specific provisions that promote the use of algae for this purpose.  The Algae Biomass Organization has specific discussion of these provisions and what needs to happen to make use of them.  See

https://algaebiomass.org/blog/11792/algae-and-seaweed-in-the-inflation-reduction-act/ and

https://www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/2022/02/14/the-next-big-step-for-algae-and-sustainable-aviation-fuels/

There are a number of companies that are processing algae for product development.  The one most familiar to people working in the energy field is MicroBioEngineering.  See

https://microbioengineering.com/

John Benneman is one of the founders of the field, and is discussed in

https://microbioengineering.com/blog/2017/2/24/welcome-to-the-microbio-engineering-inc-blog

Because many of the companies are located in the American Southwest, (including MicroBio Engineering), it is easy to get the impression that warm weather climates are necessary for the commercial development.   What surprised me is that this is not the case.  The Virginia Institute of Marine Science is also working on commercial algae development, in addition to their studies of algae occurrences in waterways.  See

https://www.vims.edu/features/research/chap_algal_fuel.php

Let me just add one additional item for this discussion.  One easily gets the impression from environmental opposition to carbon capture, which would be either necessary or valuable for the commercial development of algae, that installation of carbon capture mechanisms would guarantee combustion of fossil fuels for electricity generation indefinitely, and so the environmental groups are furiously opposed.  Carbon capture could also be used to capture CO2 and other emissions from transportation, and so the development of the technology does not necessarily dictate where it will be used.  Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have been estimated to be 27% of total emissions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in

https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions

Congestion pricing as a tool to reduce such emissions is detailed in

https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/congestionpricing/resources/enviro_benefits.htm

The studies suggest the possibility, which may not be economic or feasible, that carbon capture devices, located next to traffic bottlenecks (such as I-95 north of Fredericksburg in Virginia on a Friday afternoon or at downtown urban areas) might have higher efficiencies than are reported for the usual direct air capture.  If so, pipelines and carbon capture devices sited in these areas might be used as feeding devices to algae production, to improve efficiency and reduce pollution.

 

Discussions
Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 15, 2022

This sounds like an interesting angle. Are there any potential downsides or risks that need to be addressed while exploring this possibility? 

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Dec 16, 2022

Oh, boy, are there. There is a big lack of infrastructure, and the ABO argues about lack of scale in production.  Let me give a specific example.  The post mentions I-95 north of Fredericksburg.  Long ago, on a Friday afternoon near Potomac Mills, a big shopping center close to Fredericksburg next to I-95, traffic was almost at a standstill, and you had a lot of emissions.  Things may have changed these days because of the pandemic.  If you absolutely must build pipelines, my (unproven) belief is that environmental groups would prefer them built near highly developed land and not in pristine areas.  So the interesting question is, "Do you build a pipeline and shut down a lane of I-95 at night and reduce traffic into Potomac Mills?"  Most (if not all) of the stores there would not be open when it would be reasonable to have the construction work actually done, but the lane closure would affect other times, and it is a question of whether you will have environmental protection or maximum immediate business sales.

Julian Silk's picture
Thank Julian for the Post!
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