Sustainable Growing of Algae in High Tunnels for BioFuels

2008 Annual Report for FNC07-680

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2007: $18,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Ivan’s Fig Farm

Sustainable Growing of Algae in High Tunnels for BioFuels


The project was initiated during a critical time in the economy, when oil has reached the highest ever price of $140/barrel. Farmers have been hurt hard by the high cost of fuel for their equipment and transportation. This was further aggravated by the high cost of fertilizers, seeds and feedstock. Despite the temporary huge drop in oil prices, OPEC had dramatic cuts in oil production of 2 billion barrels/day in December. And since fossil fuels are a limited resource, which has already peaked out, in the long term things can only get worse.

The corn to ethanol approach proved also to be wrong, since it contributed to the high food prices and the hunger in many countries of the world, while we burned 30% of the corn produced as ethanol. We can’t grow our food and fuel using the most fertile land that corn requires.

The need for alternative renewable sources of biomass for fuels has never been so important.

Some species of micro-algae are the fastest growing plants on the planet, producing oil and oxygen and consuming carbon dioxide, the major pollutant for global warming. Growing micro-algae for bio-fuel does not compete for land with agricultural crops.

During the first year of the project our team has focused on establishing the necessary conditions for growing the algae in Missouri. Several species of algae were collected locally and the growing was initiated both outside and inside a High Tunnel. While all tests outside were stopped in early fall due to the dropping night temperatures and growth slow down, the algae grown inside the High Tunnel equipped with a Geo-Solar system continued successfully through the cold winter season. The goal is to extend the growing season beyond the climate limitations for growing outside in open pond or closed type systems by growing inside the High Tunnel equipped with a Geo-Solar system, utilizing the energy harvesting and energy storage capabilities of the system. We are testing the effect of the various parameters like temperature, light exposure, nutrients and their concentration, pH of the growth media by measuring the density of the algae in the culture media to determine the optimal conditions for the highest algae biomass production. The results will be used during the second year of the project to scale up the aquaculture volumes and harvest the algae biomass that can then be processed to extract the oil for bio-diesel, the carbohydrates for ethanol and the protein for feed stock or nutritional uses.

At this stage only small portion of the Grant money was used for a bench top centrifuge, scales, pumps and consumables, since the major part is dedicated to the large scale equipment like commercial centrifuge and bioreactors. The grant funds were used primarily to secure the best conditions for growing the algae during the coldest days of the winter. For that purpose, the High Tunnel was insulated around the perimeter with blue insulation foam, the end walls were constructed of polycarbonate for better insulation and stronger resistance to wind and storms.

The main result was the demonstration of the possibility to grow algae in Missouri in a High Tunnel equipped with a Geo-Solar system, coupled with a used oil furnace, in the middle of the winter. The lowest temperatures this winter were –6 F and a windchill of -20 F.

This result is a very important step in our plans to demonstrate that it will be possible to grow the micro-algae further north in Iowa, where there are even bigger temperature challenges.

The focus will be on scaling up the algae bioreactor and optimizing the growing conditions for maximum yield of biomass and oil. In parallel, various methods for separation of the algae biomass and oil extraction will be tested to evaluate the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the methods.

Our team has joined efforts with Glen Kertz, the CEO of Valcent Products Inc who has developed and patented a vertical bioreactor for growing algae. Jimmy Sinton, Assistant professor at the Maharishi University of Management and Sustainable living, has initiated a project to implement our technology for growing algae in High Tunnel with Geo-Solar System for bio-fuels in Iowa. The application of our technology with a Geo-Solar System will be critical for growing algae further north in Iowa, where there are even bigger climate limitations.

In July of 2008 we received a preliminary approval of our grant application for $2.1 million by the Board of the Iowa Power Fund of the Department of Economic Development. However our final project approval has been delayed while ethanol projects for a total of $15 million have been granted to proceed.

In February the Iowa Power Fund awarded a $2.1 million grant to the Green Plains ethanol plant for growing algae to trap CO2 emissions and waste from the ethanol production of the plant. Green Plains had applied a month earlier than us. Our grant application is being considered next and the decision will be known within 2-3 weeks. The approval of the Green Plains grant is an important indication of the commitment of one of the biggest corn-to-ethanol producing state to get involved in the algae for bio-fuel approach.

The general ideas and approach for achieving the goal of the project have been presented at a meeting of ~ 100 people, organized and sponsored by Slow Food and Schlafly Bottleworks Brewery, St Louis, MO.

Due to the potential of patenting some of the results from the project, some details of the work may not be immediately available for the public domain until the proper patent application procedures are completed.