Just off a dirt road in northwest Austin stand hundreds of 12-foot-tall tubes filled with green liquid. Nearly 15,000 gallons of algae grow inside the tubes, which are housed in a massive structure called a shade house. Lab workers have to climb ladders to peek inside and tend to the tiny organisms.
For decades, scientists have been trying to find ways to mass-produce algae as a viable source of fuel for vehicles. High costs and environmental factors have created insurmountable roadblocks.
Now, researchers hope, a new facility at the University of Texas will help them move closer to that goal.
"You need three things to grow algae: carbon dioxide, dirty water and sunshine,” said Michael Webber, an assistant professor in UT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “Texas has abundant supplies of all three.”
The university opened the large facility that houses the algae tubes three weeks ago at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus with the objective of mass-producing algae for use as biofuel and other byproducts. AlgEternal Technologies, L.L.C., a company based in Austin whose CEO is state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, partnered with the university’s UTEX Culture Collection of Algae — one of the largest algae collections in the world — to develop the technology to grow the plants for the project. Another Texas company, OpenAlgae, L.L.C., works with the university’s Center for Electromechanics to cost-effectively extract oil from the algae.
Algae can be used to make products other than biofuel, including animal feed, food supplements and pharmaceuticals, said Jerry Brand, the Jack S. Josey professor in energy studies and the director of the UTEX Culture Collection of Algae.
Michael Jochum, AlgEternal’s chief scientist, said one potential key to successfully growing large quantities of algae for commercial use is the project’s Vertical Growth Module — those giant tubes. The facility grows algae in a closed system that uses the sun as its main source of energy and reduces production costs and the chances of predators or diseases attacking the algae. Growing the cultures vertically also means scientists can produce a lot of algae in a relatively small area.
“Algae has typically been grown horizontally in open ponds, where limiting factors like poor sunlight and contamination from outside organisms have prevented large-scale algae production,” Jochum said.
The UTEX Culture Collection of Algae works with AlgEternal to decide which kinds of cultures should be grown and under what conditions, Brand said.
“They have the potential to play a role in reducing greenhouse gases and decreasing our dependence on crude oil," Brand said. “Algae can grow much faster than plants. They don’t require as much water, and they can grow in places that plants can’t, like deserts.”
That is especially important for Texas because of the severe drought gripping most of the state.
Beyond the central problem of figuring out how to economically grow large amounts of algae, Brand said, is the complexity of working with vast amounts of it.
“No one has ever grown microorganisms on a huge scale before,” he said. “As you scale up, more unexpected problems arise.”