A biofence in David Bayless’s lab that is used to grow saltwater algae

Photo courtesy of: Research Communications


Bayless uses this vertical membrane bioreactor, a special kind of algae-growing chamber that maximizes the surface area for algae and provides supplements of CO2, sunlight, and water, to optimize growth

Photo courtesy of: Research Communications

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David Bayless to discuss pond scum and clean coal at next Science Cafe

Some 14-year-old boys spend their summers playing Little League baseball and others go to camp. But, one teenage science enthusiast spent part of his summer working in the Nuclear Engineering Department's Fusion Lab in his hometown in Rolla, Mo.

"I was mostly the gofer," noted David Bayless, Loehr Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Ohio University, "but nevertheless, that was really cool."

Interested in energy since he was a kid, Bayless now works to develop new energy and environmental technologies, including processes that can lessen or mitigate the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2).

Bayless will be the speaker at Ohio University's next Science Café at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 12, in the Baker University Center Front Room. He will discuss "Powering the World with Pond Scum" and the potential of turning dirty coal-burning emissions into something green – literally.

In a state where more than 80 percent of the electricity used is generated by coal, according to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, CO2 mitigation is of particular importance. But rather than just capturing the CO2, two Ohio University researchers are searching for ways to use it. In Bayless' lab, researchers study the capture of CO2 by growing algae, the simple photosynthetic organism we often think of as pond scum. As a sustainable byproduct, the algae produced have potential uses ranging from animal feed to omega 3 fatty acid supplements.

"There are many theories and speculations on the linkage between climate change and CO2 emission," said Sunggyu Lee, an eminent Russ-Ohio Research Scholar and colleague of Bayless. "The amount of CO2 accumulated in the atmosphere is at an alarming level."

Although CO2's relationship to global warming is debated, its status as an air pollutant is not. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, coal-burning power plants are the largest U.S. source of CO2 pollution – releasing 2.5 billion tons every year.

Regarded as the top U.S. researcher in clean coal technology, Lee works to find alternative methods of utilizing CO2. This has led to the study of utilizing CO2 to synthesize compounds, including dimethyl ether, which can then be used to create fuels such as gasoline and diesel.

"It is as though we are transforming CO2 from a culprit into a hero," said Lee.

From experience, according to Bayless, there are many hurdles facing developments in coal-burning processes, but the next obstacle for the use of his research is economics. 

For Lee, the biggest challenge he foresees for energy companies and the public is patience.

"It is important that we realize it can happen, but will take both time and money, and that in the meantime we do not lose interest, but stay focused," said Lee. 

But to do so, the public must remain aware of energy research developments, especially as we go down a path where there are multiple options for sustainable solutions, noted Jason Trembly, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.