NASA reveals a newly developed system that produces algae biofuel, fertilizer and possibly animal feed, while capturing carbon dioxide and preventing pollution from wastewater. The Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae (OMEGA) system consists of self-contained bags of wastewater and algae cultures that float in seawater off the coast to produce biofuels.
Oxygen is released from the bags through the membrane as the algae absorbs sunlight and carbon dioxide. It also absorbs nutrients, creating freshwater that passes through the membrane and into the sea.
Developed at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, the demonstration operation has been successfully tested at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant.
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Growing the algae inside the bag has a competitive advantage over conventional algae farming methods in open ponds or channels. It eliminates the need for water-circulating equipment and eliminates water loss due to evaporation. The spent algae can even be reclaimed to be used for fertilizer or possibly as a feed supplement for livestock. It also has the ability to grow much more rapidly than under traditional conditions.
Compared to others, NASA researchers claim that the OMEGA system can produce over 2,000 gallons of oil per acre annually compared to a mere 600 gallons from palm and 50 gallons from soy beans.
The project, or Sustainable Energy for Spaceship Earth program, started under the Bush Administration with the help of funding from Google. However, in an attempt to increase federal funding for the project, an investigation was launched by NASA's Office of the Inspector General in 2010. With the recent success of OMEGA, legislators may have to rethink their position on the current administration's algae biofuel initiatives once again.