MSU research to harness algae to contain power plant emissions

Michigan State University scientists will explore new algae-based technologies to capture power plant emissions and sustainably turn them into valuable products.

The T.B. Simon Power Plant

East Lansing, Mich. – Michigan State University (MSU) scientists will explore new algae-based technologies to capture power plant emissions and sustainably turn them into valuable products.

The research project, funded by an approximately $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, unites faculty from the MSU departments of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) and Chemistry with industry experts in a three-year cross-disciplinary effort.

Wei Liao, associate professor in BAE, serves as director of the project.

“We’ve been running bioenergy experiments with algae on campus for over a decade,” Liao said. “We’re now testing a novel technique not only to mitigate power plant emissions, but also to turn them into new sources of revenue.”

Years of study have shown that photosynthetic green algae is capable of capturing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, but natural forces alone cannot match the output of a conventional power plant. A single 100-megawatt coal-fired power plant releases between 3,000 and 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each day. Matching this would require thousands of acres of land to culture algae, something far from feasible for most power plant facilities.

The challenge facing Liao’s team is to condense this process into something viable both from an economic and energy standpoint. They plan to accomplish it using a cutting-edge process called biomass cascade conversion, which fully optimizes the components of algae for the production of high-value chemicals and biofuels.

A key product of cascade conversion is an environmentally friendly, high-efficiency absorbent that absorbs carbon dioxide at a relatively higher rate and requires significantly less space. While capturing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases before they reach the atmosphere provides obvious benefits for the environment, biomass cascade conversion presents significant economic benefits for the power plant as well. By-products from the cascade conversion include polyurethanes, biodiesel, and other value-added chemicals and fuels for a wide range of applications.

“We want to develop carbon-neutral processes for industrial operations,” Liao said. “The proposed combination of biological and chemical processes in this project is a revolutionary approach to some of the biggest obstacles facing carbon dioxide capture – space and cost.”

The project is made possible through a partnership with the T.B. Simon Power Plant on MSU’s campus, which will host the team’s equipment and facilitate its experiments.

“MSU has always been on the forefront of cutting-edge research and development,” said Robert Ellerhorst, director of utilities at the plant. “The power plant is very pleased to host such collaborative effort that well fits MSU’s research agenda to solve the world’s problems – in this case, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Liao’s team will work with PHYCO2 LLC, a California-based firm that specializes in producing algae for industrial applications, to provide the algae colony for the project.

“This project is taking fundamental research and applying it to real-world situations,” William Clary, CEO of PHYCO2 LLC, said. “By working with a functioning power plant, we can ensure our work remains applicable, both technically and economically, at the commercial scale.”

Liao sees this project as an integral part of creating the next generation of the American energy industry.

“Our idea for the power plant of the future is not only electricity production, but also the generation of other products through carbon utilization.” Liao said. “That’s our vision down the road. It took us 10 years to get to this point, and our hope is that a few years from now, power plants will be able to implement this technology.”

MSU AgBioResearch scientist Yan “Susie” Liu, associate professor in BAE; Milton Smith, professor in the Department of Chemistry; Angela Wilson, John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in Chemistry; and Robert Morgan, chief technology officer of PHYCO2 LLC; serve as members of the project team.

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