Green algae

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(HOST) Some of our greatest discoveries involve the humblest of materials – like bread mold and penicillin – and commentator Ruth Page says that the green film you sometimes see on the surface of water may help reduce air pollution.

(PAGE) More than once I’ve had to wade through pond scum to get to the deeper, clear water for a swim. The scum feels nasty and looks messy. Useless and annoying stuff, I think.

But as with so many things in nature, looks can deceive. The imagination of an MIT engineer has found a way to make use of the icky stuff and hopes to see his work expanded as a way to sequester carbon emissions and help slow the Earth’s rising fever.

You can see the result of his experiment. On the top of MIT’s power plant are what appear to be tall, plastic organ-pipes filled with green stuff. The stuff is a big batch of single-celled algae, like those that cause the scum on ponds.

Green growth uses sun-power to consume carbon. Tests show that the algae in the MIT test are consuming forty percent of the carbon emissions from the plant, and eighty-six percent of the nitrogen oxides. All they ultimately release is oxygen and nitrogen, both harmless.

Every day, workers harvest the algae and put in a fresh batch. The harvested crop of algae can be dried and turned into solid fuel or converted into ethanol or biodiesel fuel. Those can be sold, so instead of releasing pollutants, the plant releases material that can earn money.

Back in 1996 Isaac Berzin, a chemical engineer, was working on a project for the international space station and happened to run across the idea of such a use for algae. Nobody knew what to do with green algae at the time; here was a way to turn it into fuel while promoting clearer skies. Berzin decided to check out the idea, and set up his test on the power plant at MIT. The successful MIT test led him to attract two point four million dollars in capital and create the Green Fuel Technologies Corporation. His company has begun field trials of the system out West.

A writer for Sierra magazine, Frances C. Whittelsey, says if Berzin’s new company is successful, he would have a “dream solution” for the power industry: forty percent of the CO2 and twenty-five percent of the nitrogen oxide emissions in the U.S. come from power plants.

The executive director of the U.S. Energy association warmly welcomes the plan if it works out as expected. He points out that we’d end up not having to think of carbon sequestration as a cost of doing business, but as a way of returning some revenue to the power company.

As with all fresh ideas, considerable work must be done to see how far its practicality extends, and what the cost would be for expanding it widely. It certainly seems like a promising way to help reduce the public’s concern about our increasingly dirty air and its effects on health.

Ruth Page has been following environmental issues for twenty years. She is a long time Vermont resident and currently lives in Shelburne.

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