Can Pond Scum Save the World?

03/23/2015 06:04 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

Carbon dioxide levels are rising. Air quality is getting worse. Whole species are disappearing forever. Some environmentalists say we are on our way to our own extinction. Is there a solution that will save humanity? Could our salvation be pond scum?

Green pond scum is microalgae or, more scientifically, unicellular chlorophyta is responsible for about half of the earth's oxygen. It is classified in the Protist Kingdom along with slime molds and some of those disgusting things you pray are not on your week-old bread. Microalgae can now be turned into car fuel through hydrothermal liquifaction -- a high pressure and high temperature process that simulates the conditions in the deep earth that made ancient plants into the fossil oil we are now using as fuel.

When I went to lunch with Dr. Jonathan Trent, a NASA scientist working on what are called "life-support" systems for space exploration, I learned about his OMEGA project that uses microalgae as part of a life-support system for Spaceship Earth.

"Algae are the fastest growing plants on the planet" Dr. Jonathan Trent gushed.

They feed on sunlight, water, a bit of fertilizer and carbon dioxide and lucky for us they give off oxygen as a waste product. Micro algae generate half of the oxygen we breath. If algae are made into car fuel, the carbon dioxide that cars expel is balanced by the carbon dioxide the algae used, which means the process can be carbon-neutral. Algae can grow in the wastewater (sewage) from our cities.

I asked Dr. Trent why algae aren't currently being used to produce car fuel and clean sewage water. He said:

Algae fuel costs more to produce than people are currently willing to pay, and growing algae in ponds on land competes with agriculture. The good news is that the OMEGA system brings the costs of fuels down and produces not only fuel, but also electricity, heat, clean water and food, and it doesn't compete with agriculture.

He looked out of the restaurant window onto a bustling street just steps from California's spectacular Monterey Bay.

The OMEGA is intended to float offshore in protected bays near coastal cities. The full-scale system will look like a high-tech marina with floating infrastructure covered in solar panels and long flexible plastic tubes containing wastewater and freshwater green algae, moving with the waves. The algae feed on the nutrients in the sewage and remove many of the toxins and different parts of the algae culture are harvested each day to make biofuels. If an OMEGA was used in San Francisco Bay, it would take up less than 1 percent of the Bay and it would produce at least 2 million gallons of fuel annually or about 20 percent of the diesel San Francisco's fleet of municipal vehicles consume. The water from the algae cultures is not released into the ocean, but further treated with a process developed by NASA for space exploration that makes it clean enough to drink. On the surface, the OMEGA system transforms solar energy into electricity and heat from solar panels and into biofuels from the algae.

In some locations low-speed wind turbines and floating breakwaters also collect energy. Below the surface the OMEGA system supports aquaculture with cages or nets that would grow oysters, mussels, abalone, crabs or other shellfish. The OMEGA system produces energy, clean water and food, without using land. Imagine opening up the frontier just off our coasts!

Technology, lifestyle and the environment have changed considerably in the last five decades. Fifty years ago, people would have thought you were crazy if you insisted we would all be walking around with hand-held phones, powering our homes with solar panels, recycling our packaging and cleaning exhaust with catalytic converters. These are just a few of the many green technologies that have been invented by people who took action and believed they could make a difference in the global crisis. With results like that, we cannot assume that we will die fifty years from now because of Climate Change. We do not know the solutions of the future, but there is hope if we invest in new technologies to build that future.

We have seen remarkable progress on green tech in just the last few decades. As recently as the 1970's, DDT, a deadly pesticide, had killed most of the otter and pelican populations. Otters, pelicans and many other species were on the verge of extinction. Because of numerous protests from citizens and politicians all over the United States, DDT was banned and the otter and pelican population numbers soared. Today, their populations have grown so much that it is hard to imagine they were on the verge of extinction.

This turnaround would have not occurred if people had left the problem for other people to solve. If we continue to think fatalistically, we will create that fatal ending. However, if we are open-minded and inventive, we will create a wonderfully outrageous future that is connected with nature.

If we want to live in a safe and sustainable world, we have to open our minds because the answers are all around us, perhaps even in pond scum.

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