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Governor Kaine Formally Opens ODU Algae-to-Biodiesel Facility

Gov. Timothy Kaine on Tuesday helped cut the ribbon formally opening Old Dominion University's pilot facility for algae farming and biodiesel production near Hopewell. He praised the facility, saying it fulfills the main tenets of a Virginia energy plan that strives for reliable new sources of energy while also protecting the environment.

Algal Farms Inc., on a 240-acre tract in Prince George County near the border with Surry County, currently has a working, 1-acre pond composed of parallel "raceways," which researchers believe is capable of growing enough microscopic, green algae to produce up to 3,000 gallons of biodiesel fuel per year. A second pond under construction has been designed to grow algae in wastewater effluent, stripping the effluent of harmful nutrients while also producing biomass for conversion into biodiesel.

If the pilot project is successful, dozens of ponds could be dug on the property and Algal Farms could become the first commercial facility of its kind in the country.

Participants other than the governor in the ribbon-cutting ceremony included state Sen. Frederick Quayle, whose 13th District extends from Chesapeake to Prince George County; state Delegate Riley Ingram of Hopewell; ODU's acting President John Broderick; Patrick Hatcher, ODU's Batten Endowed Chair in Physical Sciences and executive director of the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium (VCERC); and Jes Sprouse, the Spring Grove contractor and entrepreneur who founded Algal Farms together with ODU.

The project was brought about by the General Assembly's creation of VCERC in 2007. VCERC is headquartered at ODU and a 15-person team of the university's scientists and engineers has led the consortium's push to explore algae as the raw material for biodiesel fuel. The team's first project involved the installation of three Plexiglas algae-growing troughs atop the Virginia Initiative Plant (VIP), a regional treatment facility at the southwest edge of the campus. The experimental station was designed to test the use of treated wastewater as a growing medium and to investigate various aspects of the algae growing process. ODU researchers produced a small amount of biodiesel fuel from the experiment-using a proprietary process to convert the algae-and received local and national media attention because of their work.

Sprouse saw news stories about the algae-to-biodiesel project at ODU and it struck him as the wave of the future. "It hit me in February of this year," he said. "Fuel costs were going up and we have global warming. I read about what ODU and Pat Hatcher were doing and I started looking into algae. I e-mailed Pat and told him I wanted to build an algae farm. He called me back and it's been all a productive venture from there."

The young contractor chose the 240-acre plot primarily because it includes manmade lakes as a water source. But an important medium for growing the algae, if his plan evolves as he envisions, will not be the lake water. It will be effluent trucked in daily from the Hopewell Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility (HRWTF). The plan calls for the tanker trucks to bring in up to 15,000 gallons a day for the test pond. The effluent will have been treated, but still rich in nutrients, and as the algae grow in it they will consume nutrients. After the algae are harvested, the water that is left will be cleaner than the wastewater now discharged by HRWTF. Tanker trucks will haul the finished water back to the Hopewell plant, where it can be discharged into the James River.

Treatment facilities in Virginia would be willing to pay for the nutrient stripping that goes on in wastewater algae ponds because it is akin to a final scrubbing of the water before it is discharged. This helps the facilities avoid more expensive treatment upgrades to meet ever stricter discharge regulations. Also, Virginia is considering a program that would award valuable credits to entities whose discharges are cleaner than regulations require.

Therefore, the total product of the algal farm would be 1) a renewable biodiesel fuel that would be produced locally for local use at prices competitive with fossil fuels, 2) fuel that would result in carbon emissions lower than those for fossil fuels, with the aim of producing a zero net carbon emissions fuel, 3) cleaner discharges into Virginia waters and 4) marketable credits for removal of nutrients and carbon dioxide from discharges and emissions.

Also, alternative fuels made from algae have an edge on fuels made from food crops. For instance, the push to produce ethanol from corn or other food plants has brought about the destruction of forests, the plowing under of grasslands, pollution from fertilizers and the escalation of food costs around the world. Also, an acre of corn can produce only about 300 gallons of ethanol, compared to 3,000 gallons of biodiesel from a 1-acre algae pond.

Open algae ponds have been tried in the past to provide biomass to biodiesel fuel projects, but they have been stymied by inefficiencies, including problems with keeping the oil-rich, good algae in the ponds from being overwhelmed by less productive invasive species. To counter this problem, the ODU researchers have installed 30 covered algae-growing tanks, each holding 500 gallons, along the length of the completed pond. Algae-rich water from these tanks will seed the pond, and it can also be used to fight invasive species.

"Right now, the plan is to keep pure strains in the tanks and dump those into the raceways to overwhelm any unwanted algae," Hatcher explained. "The best solution seems to be to keep hitting invasive species with infusions of what we have in the tanks." A major consideration of this pilot algae-pond project, he said, is "keeping track of our algae."

Other questions the pilot project needs to answer include:

• How many months of the year will algae grow in a pond in central Virginia? Too much heat and too much cold can diminish algae productivity, so Hatcher expects that mid-summer and mid-winter weeks may present problems. Sprouse is devising a wood-fired boiler to heat water in the winter for the pilot ponds. Carbon dioxide emissions from the boiler would be pumped into the water so algae can consume the carbon, maintaining the low-carbon-footprint of the project.

• What is the most efficient way to harvest the algae? Hand harvesting with fine nets is possible, but tedious. Hatcher said the harvest will be easier once a dissolved air flotation system is installed. The DAF concept involves the release of compressed air at the pond's bottom, which creates very fine bubbles that lift the algae to the surface where a skimmer can accomplish the harvest.

A trailer at the site houses a centrifuge that will separate the oily mass of the algae from water, as well as the converter that turns the biomass into a brown liquid that looks similar to crude oil.

Other than Hatcher, ODU faculty members involved in the VCERC algae-to-biodiesel project include Margaret Mulholland, Harold Marshall, Andrew Gordon and Aron Stubbins from the College of Sciences and Gary Schafran, Han Bao and Robert Ash from the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology.

This article was posted on: September 24, 2008

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