Project aims to extract useful oil from algae

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GREEN TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- The crop, unaffected by the drought, grows strikingly green in the middle of Wayne County, Ohio.

It isn't corn. It isn't soybeans.

It is algae.

A sickly greenish hue dominates the water in four man-made ponds at Cedar Lane Farms, east of Wooster, where algae are being grown as part of a pilot project with West Virginia-based Touchstone Research Laboratory Ltd.

The goal is to grow enough algae to produce oils for renewable biofuels and other products. It is a new and potentially lucrative Ohio farm crop.

Other partners include the U.S. Department of Energy and the state of Ohio.

The project has received nearly $6.8 million in federal stimulus money. Ohio and the partners have contributed nearly $1.7 million.

Touchstone Research recently hosted a coming-out party to celebrate the beginning of the project's next phase: a demonstration-scale operation.

The project has moved from small-scale models to four plastic-lined ponds, each capable of holding 35,000 gallons of water and algae. A metal paddle wheel in each keeps the water circulating. The two indoor and two greenhouse pools cover half an acre and can grow up to 1.2 tons of algae.

Algae will be separated from the water, then the algae cells will be ruptured via a pulsing system to free the oil. Leftover material can be used as fertilizer or soil additives, although to date, nothing has been shipped from the farm.

Growing algae is not new. It's been done for a long time, but few initiatives have been successful on a large scale, said Philip Lane, Touchstone's director of business development and the program manager.

Researcher Yebo Li, who has been working on the project, said an acre of algae can produce the same amount of oil as 10 acres of soybeans.

There are two additional key elements to what Touchstone is doing, Mr. Lane said.

It is capturing and using carbon dioxide gas from a coal-fired boiler at Cedar Lane Farms' greenhouses to provide food for the algae. That keeps the carbon dioxide, a key global-warming gas that comes from burning coal, from escaping into the air. The gas is pumped into the ponds via a sophisticated system of pipes, Mr. Lane said.

Second, Touchstone is testing a proprietary chemical that keeps other plants and animals out of the water and helps maintain a more constant temperature in the ponds.


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