In addition to using the bioreactor, Bachmann and his students are experimenting with growing algae in a saltwater fish tank.
"One of the things that we want to look at is whether or not these algae could be cultivated offshore, to save valuable land area needed for housing and current food production practices," Bachmann said. "But, in order to do this, you must ensure you can do it in a contained manner, so that the algae do not disrupt the environment.
"Offshore algae farms have the potential to absorb significant amounts of CO2 and produce substantial amounts of bio-oil. But algae plumes could alter entire ecosystems if they cannot be properly contained, and you do not want that happening."
The Chesapeake Bay is a testament to this, Bachmann said. The bay has struggled with algae problems in the past, and felt strains on the fishing industry there. In certain conditions, fertilizer runoff can lead to large-scale algae plumes so thick, they block sunlight from getting through to organisms below the surface that need it. In severe conditions, those organisms die off, thus disrupting the food chain.
"These algae plumes can be quite large, some more than 400 miles in length," Bachmann said. "Right now, no one wants to clean them up. But if companies could harvest these microalgae and process them into fuel, then they just might just be motivated enough to help cleanup this environmental problem."
The deep ocean, far offshore, could prove to be an ideal place for cultivating algae without disrupting the environment.
"A lot of the ocean — 95 percent of it or so — is really like a barren desert and it doesn't have anything growing in it," Bachmann said. "As you travel into the open ocean, the surface of the sea is too far away from the nutrients that are found in the soil. These nutrients are essential for plant growth. If you're at the shore, the nutrients are here, the sunlight's here, everything grows. If you go into the deeper ocean, the sunlight is still present, but the nutrients are far below the surface and nothing will grow."
The fish tank trials will provide answers to a couple of questions: Are there algae that will grow there and can it be contained? In an attempt to keep the algae from spreading, it will be grown in clear dialysis tubing. "So if we could load up a tube, bright green, filled with algae, put it in there, have it keep growing and not have our tank get overrun with it, then we're looking pretty good," Bachmann said.
As for the nutrient source, poultry litter might do quite nicely, he said.
Gas, Diesel, Biofuel production from algae