That’s exactly what scientists in Kentucky are figuring out. The United States has a goal of zero CO2 emissions by 2040. Kentucky obtains 70% of its energy from coal, and coal processing in power plants emits tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. While it’s been possible for quite some time to extract the CO2 from the flue gas, the challenge has been to find a place to put it.
Unfortunately, the only feasible solution Kentucky coal producers have found is to bury it deep underground. Since that’s not readily available everywhere, they realized it was time for a new solution. And that’s where the idea of using algae to capture CO2 and convert it into a new form of energy was born.
Exploring the possibilities with algae makes complete sense. In fact, it was the algae content of ancient lakes and oceans that absorbed CO2, settled to the ground, and over millions of years got compressed and buried until it became oil, coal, and gas. Converting algae to renewable energy simply requires a process to convert it much faster.
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet (CAER) is partnering with Duke Energy to test pilot a photobioreactor to capture CO2 in the coal power plant flue gas and use it to feed algae growth. This type of process isn’t new. In fact, many organizations worldwide are experimenting with feeding algae pools with captured CO2; however, these methods are subject to evaporation and contamination from wildlife, which hinders algae growth.
How is this solution to use algae to capture CO2 different?
The solution developed at the University of Kentucky is different. Instead of growing algae in ponds, they use a series of transparent plastic tubing. Specifically, they’ve created simple structures with mailroom tubing and PVC pipe to grow algae in a contained environment.
The grid of tubes is located next to the power plant along with a 5,000-gallon feed tank and two centrifugal pumps. Captured CO2 is pumped into the tanks with nutrients and water. Algae from the tubes is transferred into the feed tank, where it consumes the CO2 and settles at the bottom of the tank. The algae can then be extracted and turned into new forms of energy–from renewable methane to diesel, jet fuel, and even animal feed.
What stands in our way of widespread adoption of these types of solutions? Economics. One of the challenges for scientists and engineers is to create systems that will convert CO2 emissions and produce a valuable product at a cost lower than alternatives. While the U.S. goals certainly motivate developments, these technologies must be made more efficient so companies have a financial incentive to use them and for consumers or businesses to buy the end products.
Do you want to learn more about innovations in clean energy?
The Rogue Valley Clean Cities Coalition’s mission is to enhance the livability of the Rogue Valley. We promote and educate on alternate fuels, seek to decrease dependency on petroleum, and promote clean air and water in the Rogue Valley via alternate fuels. Contact us today for more information!