By SAMANTHA BATES
The East Oregonian
When most people look at algae, they might see green slime or pond scum. When people like Rico Cruz or Steve Corson look at algae, they see opportunity.
Cruz said he first became interested in algae when working with biofuels. When he was hired by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation he kept the idea in the back of his mind. Now he’s the program manager of the tribes’ laboratory and biological services division and taking another look at the green stuff.
Corson is a spokesman for Portland General Electric, which today announced its beginning a project to potentially reduce PGE’s emissions at the Boardman coal-fire power plant, by using algae. The project is just in the beginning stages, but if successful could represent a way for PGE to continue to use the relatively cheap coal as a source of power while reducing its carbon emissions, Corson said.
Both men and the organizations they work for are interested in algae’s ability to quickly turn sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into usable products.
“It’s just like any other plant material,” Cruz explained. “It uses carbon for its growth and development. Plants usually need water, nutrients and carbon dioxide.”
The algae can take these ingredients and turn out oils for biofuel and proteins and starches for animal feed. It also has the potential to cut emissions from places like the Boardman Power Plant by as much as 80 percent, Cruz said.
And algae can do it all in record time.
“They are very prolific,” Cruz said. He said in about eight or nine hours, algae can convert carbon dioxide into other materials. “They can develop eight times more (faster) than the fastest growing plant.”
In this field, especially here in Eastern Oregon, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Cruz said his department still is in the phases of writing proposals and grants. But he said the CTUIR has met with some entities who specialize in algae and he believes they are on the road to finding the right one for the region.
When it comes to algae, Cruz said there are 100,000 different types of strains. The tribes would need to find the right one to fit its needs. Ideally, they would like one that produces at least 20 percent oil, so the tribes could use it for its biofuel potential.
“It might take a few years to determine which of the algae are best for production,” Cruz said. They would have to basically match the carbon dioxide with the appropriate algae.
That’s the point PGE is at now.
“This is in the very early stages,” Corson said. “We’re just testing whether it could work at the plant.”
Right now, Corson said PGE is testing about half a dozen tanks on the back of a truck to find the right algae for the plant. If it works, Corson said PGE will move onto larger-scale tests. It will proceed in a staged process, working on larger tests. If it continues to be successful, they may go so far as to work what he called “commercial-scale” tests.
“Where you’re really making a going concern out of it,” he said.
Cruz said the tribes are looking for carbon dioxide sources for their proposals and have considered PGE, along with the Umatilla Chemical Depot or other industries in the area as possible places to approach when they get to the point of finding sources.
Corson said PGE probably will not look for partners in the community until at least the second, larger-scale tests, if not until the commercial-scale tests. Currently, it’s partnered with Columbia Energy Partners, a firm out of Vancouver.
Cruz said there are several aspects of algae production the tribes are interested in.
“We can process them into biodiesel,” he said, “and then after we extract the oil from the algae there’s some other uses for the remaining meal or bacterial. There’s a lot of uses, too.”
Those other uses include wastewater treatment, feedstock, fertilizer, chemicals for pharmaceuticals and cosmetics and even an Asian energy drink. But Cruz primarily is interested in oil and feedstock.
Some lab studies, Cruz said, say algae can produce as much as 15,000 gallons of oil per acre in a growing season. That compares with canola producing about 70 to 80 gallons an acre, he said.
Corson said PGE’s main concern is getting the carbon out of the air and into the algae, again, if possible.
“The carbon capture is the thing that’s most attractive for us,” he said. “The Boardman plant is a significant part of our portfolio.” He said the coal plant supplies 15 percent of the power PGE uses to serve its customers.
“The main thing is carbon sequestration,” Cruz said. “Instead of putting out carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse gases, we can sequester the carbon, use it into the algae. Algae can absorb up to 80 percent.”
Corson was hesitant to support numbers as high as 80 percent, especially since PGE still is in early testing phases.
Cruz sees another use for the algae, being able to use it on otherwise useless lands.
“It can be grown on non-agricultural lands, any marginal lands, as long as there’s a source of water, there’s a source of sunlight and there’s a source of carbon dioxide you can grow algae in a short time,” Cruz said.
But unlike agriculture, the algae wouldn’t need irrigation. It would just need a set amount of water. Cruz said it produces very little wastewater. Almost all can be recycled back into the system.