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Company Turns Toxic Blooms into Alternative Energy

  • Ann Dornfeld

Algae are attracting a lot of attention and investment as an alternative energy source. Algae grow quickly, contain a lot of oil and don't take up valuable farmland. Ann Dornfeld profiles one Seattle, Washington, company that is trying to turn algae into fuel.

A pontoon boat floats just a few feet off the shore of Dumas Bay in Washington's Puget Sound. Two men are standing in the waist-deep water around the boat. They're guiding a layer of floating algae into a funnel the size of a football. The funnel is connected to a hose that is gently sucking the algae into a pump mounted on this boat. Then the algae flow into a burlap bag.

It's an algae harvest, and James Stevens is directing the process. He says they have to be careful not to suck up young salmon or other animals along with the algae.

"This junction can be turned on," he says, pointing to a switch, "and it allows me to feed water into a box where then I can sort and make sure there's no bycatch actually coming through the system."

If there are any fish or crabs in the box, the process would have to be shut down immediately.

Stevens is vice president and chief scientist of Blue Marble Energy. It's a Seattle startup trying to turn algae into fuel. Most algae-to-energy researchers are growing algae in giant tanks. Blue Marble has a different plan: gather algae that are already growing in noxious blooms along coastlines.

Rotting Algae Produce Rotten Smell

In Dumas Bay, huge blooms of the algae called ulva - or sea lettuce - often rot in the water. That process uses up oxygen and kills marine life, and when the dead sea lettuce washes up on the beach, it creates a smell the neighbors hate.

Blue Marble President Kelly Ogilvie says these algae blooms are common around Puget Sound, but that is nothing compared to more polluted waterways elsewhere in the world, such as off the coast of Qingdao, China. This summer, the waters became clogged with unsightly green algae - up to 10 centimeters thick - disrupting training for Olympic sailors.

"The bloom that occurred there was, I think, like 2,000 square kilometers," Ogilvie says, "and they pulled a million tons out of the water, and that is prologue to what is going to be happening on coastlines across the planet."

Warmer water can cause algae blooms, and some scientists think global warming is contributing to an increase in gigantic blooms. Nutrients from sewage dumping and fertilizer runoff also help algae flourish.

"If you think about what is actually happening in our oceans, the algae bloom crisis has just begun," Ogilvie says. "And if we can find a way to turn that new crisis into a solution for something else, by goodness, we're going to try and make a go at it."

Most companies doing algae-to-energy research focus on creating biofuels for cars or jets. Instead of liquid fuel, Blue Marble wants to convert algae into natural gas and biochemicals.

Along with private investment, Blue Marble has a contract with the Washington Department of Ecology to collect sea lettuce at two bays in Puget Sound. The department's Alice Kelly watched the recent harvest from the beach. She says her agency hopes this gets rid of the rotten egg smell neighbors have been complaining about without harming the fragile near-shore ecosystem and the creatures that live there.

"It's very important to protect that habitat," she stresses. "So we're walking a very fine line here between trying to deal with the excess odor problem and protect the near shore."

Blue Marble's approach provides that protection, she says, because its operation is based just offshore. They aren't dragging equipment across the beach. And today, it looks like the only bycatch has been other species of algae.

Concerns About Disrupting Marine Food Web

But some conservationists have big concerns about harvesting wild algae for fuel. One of them is Kevin Britton-Simmons, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington. He says a lot of unnatural algae blooms could be prevented by keeping fertilizer and other pollutants out of the water, and he insists what Blue Marble is doing is exploiting the problem instead of fixing it.

"I would prefer that my tax dollars be used to research and solve this problem instead," he says. "If we allow a business to develop that's dependent on this problem, what's gonna happen when we fix the problem? Will there then be pressure for this business to harvest natural populations of algae?"

Natural blooms are a valuable part of the food web, and Britton-Simmons says removing them could rob marine life of a major food source. He says it's also hard to distinguish between natural algae blooms and those caused by human activity.

Back on Dumas Bay, Kelly Ogilvie says his company has netted nearly 4,000 kilos of algae from the two harvests it's completed. The next step is to use bacteria to break down the algae into natural gas and various chemicals.

If all goes as planned, Ogilvie says Blue Marble's first batch of natural gas will be ready any day now.