Bob Downing

GREEN TWP.: The crop, unaffected by the drought, grows strikingly green in the middle of Wayne County.

It isn’t corn. It isn’t soybeans.

It is algae.

A sickly greenish hue dominates the water in four man-made ponds at Cedar Lane Farms, east of Wooster, where algae are being grown as part of a pilot project with West Virginia-based Touchstone Research Laboratory Ltd.

The goal is to grow enough algae to produce oils for renewable biofuels and other products. It is a new and potentially lucrative Ohio farm crop.

Other partners include the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, W.Va., the Ohio Department of Development’s Coal Development Office, Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, GZA GeoEnvionmental Inc. of Cincinnati and Texas-based OpenAlgae LLC.

The project has received nearly $6.8 million in a federal stimulus money. The state of Ohio and the partners have contributed nearly $1.7 million.

Touchstone Research last week hosted a coming-out party to celebrate the beginning of the project’s next phase: a demonstration-scale operation.

The company has moved “out of the nursery and into the toddler’s room,” said Philip Lane, Touchstone’s director of business development and the program manager.

The company is pleased by the progress and is intent on fine-tuning the system over the next 13 months, he said.

The project has moved from small-scale models to four plastic-lined ponds, each capable of holding 35,000 gallons of water and algae. A metal paddle wheel in each keeps the water circulating.

Two ponds are outdoors; two are in a greenhouse. Together they cover half an acre and can grow up to 1.2 tons of algae.

The algae initially grow in small batches in test tubes in the nursery at Cedar Lane Farms before developing enough to go into the ponds.

The algae will be harvested several times a week when concentrations get high enough, Lane said.

Algae will be separated from the water, then the algae cells will be ruptured via a pulsing system to free the oil. Leftover material can be used as fertilizer or soil additives, although to date, nothing has been shipped from the farm.

Developing the process

Growing algae is not new. It’s been done for a long time, but few initiatives have been successful on a large scale, Lane said.

Algae are about 40 percent oil, or lipids, and 60 percent biomass, said OARDC researcher Yebo Li, who has been working on the project. He said an acre of algae can produce the same amount of oil as 10 acres of soybeans.

There are two additional key elements to what Touchstone is doing, Lane said.

It is capturing and using carbon dioxide gas from a coal-fired boiler at Cedar Lane Farms’ greenhouses to provide food for the algae. That keeps the carbon dioxide, a key global-warming gas that comes from burning coal, from escaping into the air.

The gas is pumped into the ponds via a sophisticated system of pipes, Lane said.

Second, Touchstone is testing a proprietary chemical that keeps other plants and animals out of the water and helps maintain a more-constant temperature in the ponds.

The chemical also keeps water from evaporating. The ponds lost about 450 gallons of water a day that had to be replaced in June and July because of hot summer temperatures, Lane said.

The so-called “phase change material” that floats atop the water absorbs heat during the day. At night it keeps in heat to help promote growth of the algae.

The material is used on one indoor and one outdoor pond. The other two ponds do not get the chemical treatment.

The pilot operation is capable of producing several hundred gallons of oil from the algae, but that is not the top priority at the moment, Lane said. The goal is to better develop the process.

Fueling the digesters

There are plans to link the algal work with the anaerobic digester at OARDC in Wooster.

Leftover digester material could be used as nutrients for the algae, and the algal biomass, in turn, could help fuel the digesters, which produce methane from organic waste, including manure and foods.

The pilot project is scheduled to end in September 2013, when the grants expire, Lane said. Results will help Touchstone determine operating costs and yields.

The company is looking at ways to reduce energy costs and water use, with the aim of decreasing costs enough to make the algal oils competitive with petroleum fuels, he said.

Touchstone is hoping to find investors to put money into licensing the technology and developing the process into a full-scale commercial operation, and there is interest from some investors, Lane said.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.