CEPC algae tank
Missouri’s electric cooperatives and two of the state’s top universities are leading the way to solutions that may help address global climate change.
Associated Electric Cooperative, Inc. (AECI) and Central Electric Power Cooperative (CEPC) are partnering with Lincoln University and Missouri University of Science and Technology to grow algae using the carbon produced by a coal-burning power plant.
Researchers have been eyeing algae, which feeds on carbon dioxide, as a possible answer to the challenge of capturing the carbon emitted by power plants that burn fossil fuels.
The Missouri project uses flue gas from CEPC’s Chamois power plant near Jefferson City. The research design calls for tapping into the main flue gas stream at the top of the furnace with a four inch pipe and diverting a small portion of the gas, which is run through a cooler, controlled for temperature and pressure, and then run through water collected in small tanks.
The decision to participate in the research was easy, said Duane Highley, of AECI, which has committed up to $50,000 for the project. This money will leverage $527,000 from the state, as well as in-kind donations from Sega Engineering.
“We want to be proactive. By supporting this project, we can be at the forefront of research on reducing carbon emissions,” Highley said.
The research will be conducted at the Chamois power plant, owned by Central Electric Power Cooperative, a member of AECI.
Researchers first looked for native species of algae that adapt well to various environmental conditions and can resist the invasion by undesirable species. They have now isolated several promising strains, one of which was collected from water sources local to the Chamois plant. The algae are now growing in the pools at the site where researchers can study the growth and effects of competition.
In December, the pipe will be installed and research will begin on the algae utilization of carbon dioxide in flue gas. (As a control, one of the pools will grow algae without gas.) While MIT successfully used flue gas from a natural gas power plant in similar research, the use of coal plant emissions presents different challenges, most importantly, the effects of sulfur and particulate emissions on the algae growing process.
As with other proposed carbon sequestration methods, research into algae cultivation and harvesting is in the beginning stages. Dr. Keesoo Lee, associate professor of microbiology at Lincoln University, predicts ten years of basic research will be necessary before algae cultivation and harvesting are commercially viable. Given the long time-frame for any return on investment, federal and state funding will be key to moving the research forward.
Looking ahead, according to Donald Shaw, CEO of CEPC, the biggest obstacle will be how to scale the process up. “It could take hundreds of acres of algae ponds to consume all the carbon emissions from a power plant,” said Shaw.
Dr. Paul Nam, assistant professor of chemistry at Missouri University of Science and Technology, is tackling the challenge of how to harvest and process the algae, which will be converted to biodiesel.
The cooperatives are funding the materials for the power plant project, which will be performed in conjunction with two algae-related research projects currently being conducted by both universities and funded by USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service and the Missouri Life Sciences Research Board.
In addition to this project, CEPC has been testing a variety of biomass materials for several years at the Chamois plant, including corn cobs, walnut shells and old railroad ties. Plant staff is currently experimenting with burning turkey processing sludge with coal to produce electricity.
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