Middlebury

Can algae help achieve carbon neutrality? Two Middlebury students hope to find out

June 12, 2007

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - Within the movement toward carbon neutrality, many have turned to corn, soybeans and cow manure to produce biofuel and reduce emissions. At Middlebury College, two students think that algae may provide another natural source. One of them, Bobby Levine, a Middlebury College senior biology major, first heard about using algae to offset carbon emissions two years ago from Netaka White, director of Vermont Biofuels Association. Levine decided to apply the technology to help reduce Middlebury College's power plant emissions.

This spring, Levine teamed up with junior environmental studies major Chester Harvey, and the two began to grow algae in a reactor made from grocery store plastic bags and a bike pump. With the help of a grant from the college's environmental council and funding from the biology department and the environmental studies program, they were able to afford the equipment and chemicals they needed to begin growing algae on a larger scale. Now, they have a reactor in McCardell Bicentennial Hall that consists of a large plastic bag full of algae, carbon dioxide and air.

The goal, according to Levine and Harvey, is to use the algae to filter emissions and produce fuel such as biodiesel and ethanol to offset emissions from petroleum-based fuels. Algae absorb carbon and can prevent the release of that carbon into the atmosphere. Researchers working on a project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology experimented with algae, and in 2004, they achieved an 80 percent reduction of emissions on a clear day and a 50 percent reduction on an overcast day. The project also resulted in a reduction of air-polluting nitrous oxide levels.

Levine points out that using the algae to filter emissions is not the entire goal of the project. "In order to truly offset emissions, you have to use the polluted algae to make biodiesel to replace petroleum fuel," he says. Their plan is to harvest the algae, dry it into a powder, and then extract the oil, which can produce biodiesel.

Levine and Harvey see algae as especially beneficial for Vermont because its use could form a symbiotic relationship between the environmental movement and local agriculture. Since growing algae does not require vast acres of land and fertile soil, it does not compete for space with the local agriculture. Also, the cow manure produced on local dairies could be used as a source of nutrients for the algae.

The project's advisor, Middlebury College Professor of Biology Grace Spatafora, expresses her faith in Levine's success. "He brings both a savvy sense of entrepreneurship and a solid grounding in microbial biochemistry to the research effort. This combination sets him apart from the many others who have attempted a similar effort with algae."

Levine and Harvey's goal is to install the algae reactor on the roof of the college power plant and use it to filter the emissions from the stacks. This summer, Harvey will continue the research in Bicentennial Hall on his own, taking measurements of the algae's growth in order to determine the best time to harvest it. Next semester, Levine and Harvey will subject the algae to flue gas emissions from the college power plant to determine if the algae can withstand such a heavy, dirty substance.

The two students say they are not worried about the initial outcome of the tests. If the algae fail to withstand the flue gas emissions from the stacks, they say they can grow a different strand of algae and try again. "We hit obstacles, but we find a way around them," says Harvey. "We have a lot of ideas and the college has a lot of resources. The administration has been very helpful."

Levine and Harvey both support the college's goal to become carbon neutral by 2016 and hope that their algae research can help the college achieve that goal. "Our project is just one piece of the puzzle to decrease our reliance on foreign oil," says Harvey. Levine and Harvey recognize that theirs is one of the many contributions to the environmental movement. Levine says, "To become carbon neutral at Middlebury or anywhere, we have to do a little bit of everything. This is just one thing."