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    More Research News

  • December 3, 2002
    A green solution
    By Andrea Gibson

    The smoky stacks of coal-fired power stations are perhaps the last place anyone would expect to find thriving, green plants. But scientists at Ohio University are studying how algae and sunlight, in a natural process known as photosynthesis, can inexpensively absorb some of the carbon dioxide emissions produced when coal is burned.

    The technique would work something like this: As the carbon dioxide exhaust moves toward the smokestacks, it would pass through tubes of running water, creating bicarbonates that would bubble in the water like soda pop. The water then flows through a bioreactor with a series of screens on which algae or a related organism called cyanobacteria grow with the aid of sunlight.

    Science Spotlight video "In some cases, the cyanobacteria can get their carbon from bicarbonates in the water as effectively or more effectively than from diffusion of carbon dioxide through the atmosphere," says David Bayless, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and lead researcher on the project.

    Bayless and Ohio University researchers Morgan Vis and Gregory Kremer recently received a $1.07 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop their prototype system on a larger scale.

    First, they must determine the optimal amount of nutrients and sunlight the algae need, as well as what type of algae or cyanobacteria will grow best.

    "We may go to a mixed system in the end," says Vis, an assistant professor of environmental and plant biology who specializes in algae research. "One organism may be tolerant of high light and another of low light, so we get as much photosynthesis and use of the carbon dioxide as possible."

    Algae is not only cheap and plentiful, notes Bayless, but could be collected from the power plants for use by agricultural industries.

    "Once the algae is grown, if it can't be used as fuel or a hydrogen source, it can be used as a fertilizer or soil stabilizer," he says.

    No one technology can solve the carbon dioxide problem for coal-burning power plants, Bayless stresses, but the algae-fueled bioreactor could serve as an efficient, cost-effective part of the gas emission reduction strategy. He estimates that an average-size plant using this technology could process 20 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions and produce 200,000 tons or more of algae per year.

     

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