NASA Podcasts

Turning Algae Into Oil the NASA Way

Source: Smartplanet, CBS Interactive


My name is Jonathan Trent. I work at NASA Ames Research Center. I'm the lead scientist on a project to look at a way to use algae to produce the biofuels for the future.

NASA solves big problems. I have a PhD in marine biology, and I worked for many years in trying to understand the limits of life on earth. When I started investigating the predicament that we as a world are in, the NASA perspective of systems engineering and looking at really the big picture was very important in trying to bring together the right people to be able to work on a problem of the scale that we're going to be confronting in the next decades. We took on the task of trying to understand what would be the fuel of the future. And we decided that algae was one of the best sources of oil in the world. And we tried to understand how we would grow algae that would not compete for agricultural land. And we thought of using the oceans as the place to grow algae in a contained system. In the laboratory we set up experiments where we could grow algae in small containers using osmotic membranes made of seawater solution on the outside, grew the algae in wastewater on the inside, and demonstrated that they grow better and that we can concentrate them and that basically the system works in the lab. So then we thought okay, well most people aren't going to believe this is going to actually work in the ocean, because it's a very different environment from what we have in the laboratory. So we built some larger plastic containers, these Omegas, and we took them out to Capitola, which is a small beach town in Santa Cruz, and we deployed them off the pier and let them just float in the water and demonstrated that, in fact, that part of it works. We think algae can provide a form of fuel that will allow us to stop using fossil fuels. I mean, it'll take a long time to be able to do that, but if we really work on it as a concerted effort, I think we'll be able to do it in time to make a big difference for the future of the planet.