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Algae power

December 14, 2009

By harnessing algae's appetite for CO2, scientists hope to create bioreactors that could simultaneously produce biofuel and building materials.

Green algae bubbles as it consumes CO2 at the Juelich Research center
Micro-algae is the key, scientists think, to filtering excess CO2Image: DW

In the struggle to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, researchers think they have found a new weapon that poses a triple-threat to dangerous CO2 build-up: Algae.

In the greenhouses of the Juelich Research Center in western Germany, hundreds of V-shaped tubes containing green, slimy soup bubble away in a biological symphony.

The slime is actually billions of the micro-algae organisms that have researchers at the Juelich center so excited. The plant-life can be found all over the globe; from hot springs, to salt and fresh water. These tiny algae have one huge advantage according to biologist Kostas Schinarakis, they think CO2 is delicious.

"These marine algae are a special kind of seaweed, which very effectively and frugally, take CO2 and turns it into biomass," Schinarakis said.

Tiny organism - big appetite

"The hope is that we could harness these on a large scale; say for example in filtering the CO2 out of the exhaust of a coal-burning power plant, thus keeping that CO2 out of the atmosphere," he told Deutsche Welle.

Like all other green plants, the algae require light and carbon dioxide to photosynthesize and grow. But compared to other green plant-life, the algae will grow seven to 10 times faster and consume accordingly as much CO2, researchers say. Two kilos of algae could polish off four kilos of CO2.

Kostas Schiranakis poses with the V-shaped tubes of liquid algae at the Juelich center
Schiranakis hopes to use algae to reduce carbon emissionsImage: DW

"We would need millions of these facilities to make energy production in Germany carbon neutral," Schinarakis said. "But it is one approach."

More to algae than atmospheric scrubbing

But other researchers have different plans for the industrious algae.

"This facility is not here to simply solve the CO2 problem, it also uses that CO2 to create a valuable biomass byproduct," scientist Martin Kerner of the Hamburg-based TERM project asserted.

TERM is a pilot project cultivating the rapidly proliferating algae biomass to create building materials and biofuel.

"The goal is biomass, biomass, biomass. It can be created more efficiently by this process than by larger plant-life," Kerner said.

Kerner said he expects that the same amount of algae could create 50 to 100 times as much fuel as with rapeseed. Another important benefit of the algae is that it would not displace food-related crops such as wheat or corn.

Author: Judith Hartl (sjt)
Editor: Sean Sinico