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Algae as Biofuel?

Imagine a future in which a clean, renewable biofuel powers our lives. No open land is consumed. No destructive emissions are released into the atmosphere. Jon Spencer (04F) does. And the key, he says, is algae. Spencer’s Div III project, Algae photobioreactors: Waste to Energy with Scenedesmus dimorphus, explores the use of homegrown algae as a biofuel.

“I’ve tried to design an efficient and inexpensive system to allow the expansion and commercialization of algal biofuel technology,” says Spencer. He began researching algal biofuels after taking a sustainability seminar during his third year at Hampshire.

Jon Spencer
“I was intrigued by the idea that you could use algae to remediate waste and sequester carbon dioxide emissions while producing renew-able energy,” he explains. “I have great respect for innovative Hampshire grads like Greasecar founder Justin Carven (98F), and I wanted to produce something that could have real ecological benefit.”

Spencer envisions a system in which algae could possibly be homegrown, even on rooftops, to produce the nation’s energy. “Local fuel promotes autonomy and increases the amount of money being circulated in the community,” he says. Conducting his research, Spencer made heavy use of Hampshire facilities. With a philosophy of  “design by doing,” he needed to build small prototypes of his system that could be tweaked and modified as he went along.

“I built several systems with a grant and tremendous support from the Harkness Foundation and Lemelson Center, and set up a lab in the greenhouse of Cole Science Center,” he says. “At first I used multiple local species of algae to prove that you could easily isolate and simply build a system that could biofixate carbon dioxide emissions from available nutrient sources like worm compost.”

Spencer then began growing a high-oil species of alga and hopes to install his newest prototype system outside on campus as a “sort of pseudo art installation.”

On tap next, Spencer has been talking with the Simply Green Biofuels company and a research fellow with the University of New Hampshire’s Environmental Research Group about participating in the construction of an alga plant that runs on carbon dioxide from refined landfill gas in Rochester, New Hampshire. He is also scouting other offers, including one from an Easthampton biofuels company.

“I’m passionate about my work and believe there is a serious potential for algae to be a renewable local fuel source for the future,” he says. “We need to radically rethink our energy systems, and we need to do it now.”

 

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