# Algae to the rescue

by Ivan Seeking
Tags: algae, rescue
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PF Gold
P: 12,498
 Quote by baywax Ivan, is there any chance that algae will grow in the dead zones around sewage treatment plant outflows....? These are usually in the ocean and just off shore. the oceans temp never varies much more than 2 degrees over the year.
In all likelihood, it is best to treat the runoff or discharge before it reaches the open oceans. In fact dead zones are often created by spontaneous algae blooms, often due to the presence of nitrogen, that choke off the oxygen supply for everything else. So, interestingly, the choice can be, a controlled bloom now, or an uncontrolled bloom later. It reminds me a bit of Judo where you use your opponent's momentum against them.

You may remember what happened along the Chinese coast, just before the Olympics. I don't know if the cause of that bloom was identified, but it typically comes down to high temperatures, and/or the presence of relatively high levels of nitrogen due to, sewage, agricultural runoff, or industrial waste products. In any case, nitrogen is critical to algae growth.

BBC report
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7485405.stm

In fact, algae is certainly already a part of the cleanup process in the case of constructed wetlands.
http://www.toolbase.org/Technology-I...ucted-wetlands
http://www.unep.or.jp/ietc/publicati...agement-10.pdf
 Emeritus Sci Advisor PF Gold P: 12,498 ...or did you mean that we tap the end of the discharge pipe for a controlled farm? Flying by the seat of my pants here, that sounds like a tempting idea. Open systems, such as wild blooms in the ocean, can be a real problem, but if the discharge was incorporated into a marine farm having a closed system, in broad strokes here, that could work. As a best case, I would think, treatment on the front end would likely need to be significantly modifed, but waste products tend to be great sources of nitrogen and phosphorous - which is also critical to growth. The big problem that I do see here is that of toxins, industrial chemicals, and even measurable levels of drugs, like morphine! As it stands now, raw sewage is a real witch's brew. I don't know what the potential for serious drawbacks may be if algae intended for fuel is used to treat an uncontrolled discharge. For that reason, I would expect it likely that front-end treatment would be critical, with mainly the nitrogen and phosphorous left for the algae, at the discharge pipe.
PF Gold
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 Quote by Ivan Seeking ...or did you mean that we tap the end of the discharge pipe for a controlled farm? Flying by the seat of my pants here, that sounds like a tempting idea. Open systems, such as wild blooms in the ocean, can be a real problem, but if the discharge was incorporated into a marine farm having a closed system, in broad strokes here, that could work. As a best case, I would think, treatment on the front end would likely need to be significantly modifed, but waste products tend to be great sources of nitrogen and phosphorous - which is also critical to growth. The big problem that I do see here is that of toxins, industrial chemicals, and even measurable levels of drugs, like morphine! As it stands now, raw sewage is a real witch's brew. I don't know what the potential for serious drawbacks may be if algae intended for fuel is used to treat an uncontrolled discharge. For that reason, I would expect it likely that front-end treatment would be critical, with mainly the nitrogen and phosphorous left for the algae, at the discharge pipe.
That's sort of what I was getting at. Though I hadn't thought of using the algae as part of the treatment... then using the algae as a source of fuel. Win win! I imagine controlling a bloom in the ocean would be difficult because of the changing conditions... but diverting the wastewater to a controlled environment makes sense. Thanks Ivan...!
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 Quote by Ivan Seeking In my own efforts, what ultimately drove the choice for the depth of the water in the reactor bed, was the need to avoid wild fluctuations in the temperature of the algae water.[...]
If you use water circulation that greatly reduces the temperature gradients, no?
Emeritus
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 Quote by mheslep If you use water circulation that greatly reduces the temperature gradients, no?
Yes, however we still have the problem of the total energy input [about 700-800 watts solar per sq meter that goes to heat, on a good day], and the resulting temperature rise.
 Emeritus Sci Advisor PF Gold P: 12,498 Given my location, it was also necessary to assume a worst case of, nighttime lows of 20 degrees F, and many days - November through January - with as little as ~ 400 watts of heating per sq meter during the daylight hours. From the start it was clear that this was pushing the limits of what was manageable. Clearly it would be necessary to vary the strain as a function of the season. Strains that might work well here in the summer certainly couldn't be managed in the winter. There are low-temperature strains that it seemed might survive the winter months given the proper reactor design. One advantage that we have here is that our coldest days are usually bright and sunny. In theory, that gave me a bit of wiggle room. Also, by maximizing the contact area with the earth [by shaping and sizing the ditches], relative to the reactor's exposed surface area, it was intended that enough heat from the earth could be captured in order to survive the coldest nights.
 Emeritus Sci Advisor PF Gold P: 12,498 The best case that I could see using processing and biotechnologies now, or, hopefully, soon to be available, and assuming that the price of fuel stays a little above \$3.00 per gallon retail, was that a land-based farm might be profitable beginning at about 50k-100K acres. One of the big drivers for this was the efficiency of the power plant - for the power required to run the farm and processing equipment. At large scale, we can use systems having the highest efficiency - likely, turbine engines with heat recovery systems. Though, diesels modified for very high compression, for the nitrogen fix, are a promising avenue of thought. The very high compression makes them more efficient. Plus, we get the free nitrogen. I don't know if this same approach could be used on a turbine engine; that is, that we could get the same benefit of high NOX emissions. 100,000 acres is about 156 sq miles, or 12.5 miles on a side.
 Emeritus Sci Advisor PF Gold P: 12,498 Another landmark achievement related to algae research: Bacterial Cell with a Chemically Synthesized Genome :http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=404603 The ability to design algae or bacteria for fuel production, has long been touted as a pinnacle achievement of future research, so this is highly significant to the viability of algae for fuel. Since microalgae and bacteria are simple life forms, one might hope for specific progress in this area - fuel production - as soon as any other. Not to mention that there is approximately a one-trillion dollar per year market incentive to replace fossil fuels, with sustainable, domestically produced, clean fuels, just in the US. This could eventually open the door to a viable supply of organically-produced hydrogen. If we have a viable source of hydrogen, the hydrogen economy will have its currency. Note that microalgae may be a potentially good source of hydrogen, as well as ethanol, biodiesel, and perhaps even fuels similar to gasoline.
 Emeritus Sci Advisor PF Gold P: 12,498 Speaking of incentive http://www.physicsforums.com/showthr...67#post2729867
PF Gold
P: 3,081
 Quote by Ivan Seeking Speaking of incentive http://www.physicsforums.com/showthr...67#post2729867
In the case of an offshore oil algae farm (vs ethanol) as described above producing, say 1 million bbls per year, what's implicit in the process that would stop the same kind of disaster from happening in the case of an accident during a storm?
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PF Gold
P: 12,498
I will quote from the other thread and redirect any additional discussion here

 Quote by Ivan Seeking Oil from algae is just vegetable oil. It is non-toxic. You can drink it. And it degrades readily. Also, without a significant source of nitrogen and the proper temps, the algae won't survive in open water - that is, it wouldn't exist as a giant plume that kills everything else. If you have these conditions, you would already have an algae bloom, in most cases. You would certainly have a lot of fish food! Also, you wouldn't have millions and millions of gallons of oil leaking endlessly. You could only spill the oil that has been processed. The rest is still trapped in the algae.
http://www.physicsforums.com/newrepl...eply&p=2730137
 Emeritus Sci Advisor PF Gold P: 12,498 Note that there are some strains of algae that release neurotoxins. Obviously these strains are not considered viable candidates for fuel production. They do present a real threat, however, to anyone working with algae. It is important to know what you're dealing with. Toxic, invasive strains, could be an issue if not checked. Again, a batch process helps to minimize this concern.
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Ok moved here ...

 Quote by Ivan Seeking Oil from algae is just vegetable oil. It is non-toxic. You can drink it.
Sure, and the MHDS for motor oil lists it as 'relatively non-toxic'. A million barrels of vegetable oil dumped into the ocean could not be called harmless in my view. Covering the plumage of birds with any kind of heavy oil is going to kill them just as dead.

I might be wrong, but I believe the lightweight aromatics (e.g. benzene) are the most toxic compounds contained in the mixture commonly called petroleum. We know they evaporate fairly quickly. So, once the aromatics are gone in a spill like this, and reports suggest they are, I'm curious about the difference in toxicity, or more precisely the harm, between the petroleum products remaining after evaporation, and the oil produced by a biodeisel grade algae.

 Also, without a significant source of nitrogen and the proper temps, the algae won't survive in open water - that is, it wouldn't exist as a giant plume that kills everything else. If you have these conditions, you would already have an algae bloom, in most cases.
The cells may die but the hydrocarbon compound remains. Then there are the modified strains (from Exxon and Craig Venter) that secrete the oil outside of the cell to make oil collection more economic. In that case, the fate of the algae cells themselves is irrelevant to an accident.
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 Quote by mheslep Ok moved here ... Sure, and the MHDS for motor oil lists it as 'relatively non-toxic'. A million barrels of vegetable oil dumped into the ocean could not be called harmless in my view. Covering the plumage of birds with any kind of heavy oil is going to kill them just as dead.
This would be a simple matter of regulating the maximum quantity of oil that can be stored. That is quite a different problem from what we face in the gulf. And there is no need for the Exxon Valdez when the oil source is 80 miles offshore.

Would you drink motor oil? Don't try to spin this as if there is no difference between crude oil, and food. That is a ludicrous position to assume.

 I might be wrong, but I believe the lightweight aromatics (e.g. benzene) are the most toxic The cells may die but the hydrocarbon compound remains. Then there are the modified strains (from Exxon and Craig Venter) that secrete the oil outside of the cell to make oil collection more economic. In that case, the fate of the algae cells themselves is irrelevant to an accident.
The algae plume cannot exist without the proper nutrients. The majority of the stuff would die and sink to the bottom of the ocean; just as happens already in the normal CO2 sequestration process naturally provided by algae.

The potential problem of releasing bioengineered strains of algae into the wild, is another concern. But I would prefer that discussion be redirected to a dedicated thread, as that is a huge topic generally for all of biology. One immediate thought that comes to mind is that, if algae are famous for doing anything, it is mutating. Given the countless strains of algae found around the world. And considering the existing rate of mutation for natural algae, it seems that we would be hard-pressed, by many orders of magnitude, to pose a greater threat than already exists in nature, to produce a dangerous strain of algae. We could also design strains to be safe. Nature has no such motivation. In fact, it is my understanding that algae essentially have wars when strains are competing the wild. In effect, each strain mutates until one produces something toxic to the other.
P: 70
 Quote by Ivan Seeking That is about one Iraq war every year in returns.
Since when is invading a country with crippled military infrastructure considered a war, or even a unit of measurement for that matter?

Algae is great, most of the treehuggers out there don't realize the majority of oxygen is being released by algae and not trees (I am not justifying deforestation, I strongly oppose it). Not to mention it is capable of producing bio mass as much as 30x times faster than any plant, making ethanol production from corn or soy look moronic at best.

The byproduct of oil production from algae is a good food additive for farm animals.

There are also many more potential benefits, what is critical is the actual execution, as we, humans have a history of misusing everything good we come in contact with.

Genetic engineering should be outlawed, its potential benefits far being far exceeded by its potential harm. No need to play gods and trying to better nature, all we need is to stop destroying it and if we have the resource - helping out a bit, but without playing Dr. Frankenstein
PF Gold
P: 3,081
 Quote by Ivan Seeking This would be a simple matter of regulating the maximum quantity of oil that can be stored.
If one wants to seriously explore using offshore algae farms at a scale capable of replacing the global petroleum industry, I see nothing 'simple' about avoiding temporary storage of, say, a 1. 7 million bbl/day rate of production (Gulf of Mexico production). In fact I suggest it is a practical impossibility to avoid having at least a significant fraction of a day's oil production on the water at a given moment.

 That is quite a different problem from what we face in the gulf. And there is no need for the Exxon Valdez when the oil source is 80 miles offshore.
Eh? The Valdez (ship) collided with the shore (essentially), hence the concentrated damage at Valdez (port/town)

 Would you drink motor oil? Don't try to spin this as if there is no difference between crude oil, and food. That is a ludicrous position to assume.
I'm not. I'm attempting to explore the technical difference in degrees of harm which means going past hand waiving about what one can drink in small qty. Petroleum oil spills are visibly harmful. I now am asking why a hydrocarbon like CnH2(n+1-g) (naphthene from petroleum) is credited with ruining the Gulf but the same amount of hydrocarbon C3H5O6C(CnH(2n+x))3 (Canola) is somehow harmless fish food?

Edit: Another point as to why quantity must be important: there's always some background natural seepage of oil, several million bbl per year worldwide, which the oceans seem to have well tolerated long before oil rigs appeared.

 The algae plume cannot exist without the proper nutrients.
We've already been there. The disposal of the oil itself, once created, does not depend on the health of the algae. The difference from offshore petroleum production would be two fold, I believe: one, the continuing production of algae oil could be stopped almost immediately, but two, a realistic algae farm would necessarily have an enormous amount of oil present on the surface at any one time which all could be theoretically released, worst case, into the ocean.
PF Gold
P: 3,081
On this subject, this study is interesting to me for two reasons: 1) the background material gives some chemical description of what components of a petroleum spill actually end up on the beaches, and tangentially 2) it turns out biodiesel has been shown effective in breaking up the 'waxy' components. The study also notes that biodiesel is readily biodegradable, but I'm not clear that this means its parent triglyceride are also equally degradable before transesterification.

Stimulating the Biodegradation of Crude Oil with Biodiesel Preliminary Results
Spill Science & Technology Bulletin
Volume 5, Issues 5-6, 1 October 1999, Pages 353-355

 Abstract Experiments using biodiesel derived from vegetable oils have demonstrated the considerable potential for removing crude oil from contaminated beaches. During laboratory studies in small boxes, contaminated sand treated with biodiesel also demonstrated the rapid biodegradation of the crude oil. Water soluble components were washed through the sand columns and these components subsequently precipitated with cold storage. This solid fraction was not soluble in organic solvents but could be re-dissolved in dilute acid. The sediments after four weeks were black in colour due to the precipitation of metal sulphides although no H2S was generated because the pH of the seawater kept the sulphides in solution. Further work is investigating which components of the oil were degraded and what products were formed
 Introduction Previous work has demonstrated the usefulness of biodiesel, the methyl derivatives of vegetable oils, in the removal of crude oil from intertidal sediments (Miller & Mudge, 1997; Mudge and co-workers, unpublished reports). Biodiesel acts as a non-volatile organic solvent and dissolves the crude oil, including weathered oil. In most cases of crude oil contamination on beaches, the oil has been at sea and most of the volatile compounds (e.g., BTEX, short chain aliphatics) have evaporated off and only the less volatile components (e.g., PAHs, long chain aliphatics) reach the shore. Biodiesel is able to dissolve these waxy components and make them more mobile in the environment. Experiments are in progress to determine the best application methods and efficiencies of removal. As part of this work, a biological side-effect has been observed which makes biodiesel even more useful than originally thought. Biodiesel has been used as a diesel fuel substitute or additive for many years (see Louwrier, 1998 for a review) and previous work has demonstrated the rapid degradability of biodiesel in the environment; 95% after 28 days in an aqueous environment.[*] More recent work by the same group (Zhang, X., Peterson, C., Reece, D., Haws, R. and Moller, G., 1998. Biodegradability of biodiesel in the aquatic environment. Trans. ASAE 41, pp. 1423–1430. View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (34)Zhang et al., 1998) has examined the degradability using EPA methods and concluded that biodiesel is “readily biodegradable”. [...]
[*] So what is the 95% breakdown time of the crude oil products?
PF Gold
P: 3,081
EPA to the rescue with the answer to my question and then some. Apparently the answer is quite complex.

In 1994 a gaggle of agricultural associations attempted have the EPA change the Clear Water Act rules and label them (oils and fats vendors) more or less harmless, as different from the 'bad' and 'toxic' petroleum products industry. The 'petitioners' were
the American Soybean Association, the Corn Refiners Association, the National Corn Growers Association, the Institute of Shortening & Edible Oils, the National Cotton Council, the National Cottonseed Products Association, and the National Oilseed Processors Association.

http://www.epa.gov/EPA-WATER/1999/Ap...y-08/w8275.htm
 a. Petitioners' request. [...] Based, in part, on these studies, the Petitioners asked us to create a regulatory regime for response planning for non-toxic,'' non-petroleum oils separate from the framework established for petroleum oils and toxic'' non-petroleum oils. They suggested specific language[...] For facilities that handle, store, or transport animal fats and vegetable oils, their suggested revisions would: modify the definition of animal fats and vegetable oil (set out in Appendix E, Section 1.2 of the FRP rule); allow mechanical dispersal and no action'' options to be considered in lieu of the oil containment and recovery devices otherwise specified for response to a worst case discharge; require the use of containment booms only for the protection of fish and wildlife and sensitive environments; and increase the required on-scene arrival time for response resources at a spill from 12 hours (including travel time) to 24 hours plus travel time for medium discharges and worst case Tier 1 response resources.
and the EPA response:
 c. Denial of petition. On October 20, 1997, EPA denied the petition to amend the FRP rule. We found that the petition did not substantiate claims that animal fats and vegetable oils differ from petroleum oils in properties and effects and did not support a further differentiation between these groups of oils under the FRP rule. Instead, we found that a worst case discharge or substantial threat of discharge of animal fats and/or vegetable oils to navigable waters, adjoining shorelines, or the exclusive economic zone could reasonably be expected to cause substantial harm to the environment, including wildlife that may be killed by the discharge. We pointed out that the FRP rule already provides for different response planning requirements for petroleum and non-petroleum oils, including animal fats and vegetable oils. We also disagreed with Petitioners' claim that animal fats and vegetable oils are non-toxic when spilled into the environment and should be placed in a separate category from other toxic'' non-petroleum oils. Information and data we reviewed from other sources indicate that some animal fats and vegetable oils, their components, and degradation products are toxic. Furthermore, we emphasized that toxicity is only one way that oil spills cause environmental damage. Most immediate environmental effects are physical effects, such as coating animals and plants with oil, suffocating aquatic organisms from oxygen depletion, and destroying food supply and habitats. We noted that toxicity is not one of the criteria in determining which on-shore facilities are high-risk and must prepare response plans. Rather, the criteria for determining high-risk facilities are certain facility and locational characteristics, because we expect that discharges of oil from facilities with these characteristics may cause substantial harm to the environment
Further down in bullet form:
Like petroleum oils, animal fats and vegetable oils and their
constituents can cause toxic effects that are summarized below. They
can:
• Cause devastating physical effects, such as coating animals and plants with oil and suffocating them by oxygen depletion;
• Be toxic and form toxic products;
• Destroy future and existing food supply, breeding animals, and habitat;
• Produce rancid odors;
• Foul shorelines, clog water treatment plants, and catch fire when ignition sources are present; and
• Form products that linger in the environment for many years.

The EPA's exploration of the technical background is very interesting.

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