Imagine an oil well of the future as a kind of oil farm where the humble micro algae is grown in such vast amounts that it reduces our dependence on fossil fuels.
"It moved it from basically a 20-gallon system to a 450-gallon system and now the next step will be, can we put this offshore somewhere with not four bioreactors, but 400 bioreactors," said Jonathon Trent, Ph.D., the NASA scientist behind the OMEGA (Off-shore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae) Project. The project's goal is to produce a sustainable, renewable, carbon neutral fuel, bio-diesel from algae, farmed in plastic containers off-shore.
After two years, $10 million from NASA and $800,000 from the state, Trent and his team think they've found a way, using wastewater as fertilizer. A San Francisco PUC water treatment plant loaned NASA some tanks and wastewater to experiment.
"We have flue gas, gas that's rich in CO2 that we can feed to the algae and we have saltwater in these tanks to test our ideas of keeping algae afloat and test the idea that we might be able to kill algae if they escape in sea water," Trent said.
It's no accident Trent comes from NASA's life support division where they figure out ways to keep astronauts in space for a long time.
"How you can recover waste for real long duration from space flight? You can't just take a lot of stuff with you, you have to recycle things, and so there are scientists working on that problem right now -- how do you recycle waste and turn it back into food and oxygen and things that the astronauts need for their trip?" NASA OMEGA project manager Stephan Ord said.
The next step is for another team of scientists and engineers to take over where OMEGA leaves off, and figure out if making big enough offshore algae farms is truly possible.