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Biotech Open Source Earth Science Technology

Is DIY Algae Farming the Future? 322

Posted by timothy
from the for-fun-and-food-and-friendship dept.
hex0D points to this "interview with Aaron Baum explaining why people growing algae at home for food can help the environment and their health, and what he's doing to facilitate this. 'We'd like to create an international network of people growing all kinds of algae in their homes in a small community scale, sharing information, doing it all in an open source way. We'd be like the Linux of algae – do-it-yourself with low-cost materials and shared information.' And one of the low-cost materials is your household urine."
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Is DIY Algae Farming the Future?

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  • Urine? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by WarJolt (990309) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @06:34PM (#33556164)

    Does this article really suggest feeding algae urine and then using it as a food product?

  • by frovingslosh (582462) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @06:37PM (#33556184)

    ...people growing algae at home for food ....... And one of the low-cost materials is your household urine.

    Somehow I think this business is it's own worst enemy. Perhaps they should omit that little part of the plan, at least until they start making some progress with the rest. How could they think this was a good way to promote a new food source?

  • Re:Urine? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Chyeld (713439) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (dleyhc)> on Sunday September 12, 2010 @06:52PM (#33556278)

    You do understand that in many places normal food crops are still fertilized by feces?

  • by Kohath (38547) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @07:05PM (#33556396)

    Is shooting yourself in the head to avoid a pointless and severely unpleasant (but "sustainable") existence in a dystopian ecologically green world "the future"? Can we deprive ourselves of everything good about life so our children can inherit a world where they'll also have to deprive themselves of everything good about life? Is this wise?

    Why wouldn't we choose to strive for a good outcome rather than the worst possible outcome where we all (sort-of) survive?

    Do you have the blueprints to the Discovery Channel building?

  • Re:Urine? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 12, 2010 @07:32PM (#33556610)

    Nope. We are all dying of cancer because we now live long enough to get cancer.

    If you don't want to die from cancer, I suggest that you move to a preindustrial society so you can die in your 30s or 40s from some other cause like malnutrition or disease.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @07:43PM (#33556700) Journal
    The advantage of "progress" that makes life worse, or at least having access to the technology and engineering needed to institute it on short notice, really depends on how optimistic you are about the alternative.

    If you are of the optimistic "steady-state-or-even-better" school, giving up long hot showers, giant pieces of perfectly cooked cow corpse, and 85 degree buildings all winter for its own sake is a rather curious and masochistic hobby. Fine if that is your thing; but not really for general consumption, much less compulsory introduction.

    The great utility of "worse progress" comes in the event of some sort of nasty supply shock. The basic problem is this: "progress"(R&D, engineering, building infrastructure, educating people, etc.) requires that a civilization be able to run a surplus in energy, food, and other useful materials. If civilization falls short of that, it generally falls back on eating its own infrastructure to survive(just consider the amount of european masonry that was just pilfered from roman stuff; because that was easier than mining it, and they couldn't make concrete anymore). Worst case, you not only get infrastructure degradation(both material and human capital) from lack of maintenance and training; but further destruction as people fight over the scraps.

    In our case, hydrocarbons have essentially allowed us to, for the past century or two, run massive surpluses. If we have to get off that particular train, we have to hope that the fusion/solar/orbiting microwave satellite/thorium breeder reactor/etc. guys have it together by that time, or things are going to get ugly. The nightmare scenario is that we lose the ability to run surpluses before we perfect the next energy source. If that happens, we might never have another shot at it. "Worse" technologies have the potential to be a useful delaying tactic, allowing us to run an R&D and infrastructure construction surplus long enough to get something else in place. Also handy in extreme environments, like space colonies or antarctic bases or what have you.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 12, 2010 @07:51PM (#33556746)
    Who gives a shit what extreme anybody thinks, it doesn't mean you don't have to worry about sustainable alternatives because you don't agree with some whack that wants you to sit on your hands all day. Sounds like a convenient excuse to do whatever you want because the extreme opposition is 'wrong'.
  • Re:Urine? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by skids (119237) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @08:08PM (#33556890) Homepage

    Sterile, sure, but with all the prescriptions we are on here in the developed world... not necessarily free from extras.

  • by Kohath (38547) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @08:28PM (#33557010)

    Who gives a shit what extreme anybody thinks, it doesn't mean you don't have to worry about sustainable alternatives because you don't agree with some whack that wants you to sit on your hands all day. Sounds like a convenient excuse to do whatever you want because the extreme opposition is 'wrong'.

    Doing whatever I want? You mean like a free person in a free society? That's a subversive idea you have there. I can see why you posted it anonymously.

    Extreme environmentalists aren't really into letting you choose whether you care about what they think. They demand obedience to their enlightened authority.

  • by antifoidulus (807088) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @08:42PM (#33557120) Homepage Journal
    But the solar powered LEDs take a lot of energy to manufacture and ship. At what scales does it make more sense to use direct sunlight to grow algae rather than use a solar powered LED?
  • by iwaybandit (1632765) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @08:46PM (#33557142)
    Sugar producing algae? I WANT!!!
    Just add yeast. Fun for all.
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @09:38PM (#33557430) Journal
    I agree that hiding from dystopias makes a lousy overall culture; but having some people specializing in it can be quite useful.

    More to the point, in this case, the chap in TFA sounds optimistic to the point of utopian. He isn't railing about the imminent demise of all Haber-Process based agriculture, he is geeking out about the second coming of the vegetable garden. Given the percentage of the American population that basically lives on things that food chemists can turn corn into, and the percentage of the world population that spends a lot of time not actually eating, he is (arguably) proposing progress in line with your definition.
  • by siddesu (698447) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @10:16PM (#33557630)

    So, you just stuff one more tank under your bed, and grow those bacteria there ;)

  • by WillDraven (760005) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @11:52PM (#33558036) Homepage

    These guys claim to be "Open-Source" but when you go to their website [algaelab.org] they want you to come to California and pay $150 for a seminar to learn from them. No designs or instruction available for free.

  • by flyingsquid (813711) on Monday September 13, 2010 @12:14AM (#33558158)
    Although I wouldn't consume algae as a food source, I could certainly use it as a fuel source.

    A big issue with biofuels is the water used. It's sort of dead obvious once you think about it. It doesn't take a heck of a lot of water to pump a barrel of oil out of the ground, but producing a similar amount of ethanol from corn will require a lot of water for irrigation, and we're already straining our freshwater water resources. According to a report commissioned by congress [http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/2010/world/energy-department-blocks-disclosure-of-road-map-to-relieve-critical-u-s-energy-water-choke-points/ [circleofblue.org] it takes 1.5 gallons to produce a barrel of oil, 4 for corn without irrigation, 1,000(!) for corn with irrigation. Coal and nuclear also require vast quantities of water for cooling.

    It would be interesting to know how algae compares. Probably you'd use a lot less water than corn, since land plants have to pump water through their veins by evaporating it from the leaves, and you could use sealed tanks/ponds that wouldn't lose water. Also, if you can use wastewater or brackish water, water use would be less of an issue.

  • Once we get the infrastructure for hydrogen in place
    it would be a viable transition between these two methods.

    Why bother? We have the fueling infrastructure for biodiesel right now, and mechanics who know how to work on diesels. Diesel fuel is less dangerous than gasoline, while hydrogen is arguably moreso, or at least in the same ballpark. Batteries are gaining quick charging technologies that are setting them up to rival the speed of hydrogen refueling, and they are already approaching the best-case energy density of hydrogen while currently providing superior efficiency in giving up their energy as opposed to hydrogen through a fuel cell. Hydrogen in cars is stored at extremely high pressures necessitating an extremely costly storage and distribution network that is simply not necessary with diesel fuels; meanwhile we have an adequate power grid for nighttime charging of MANY electric vehicles before ANY changes need be made. Indeed this would improve the overall efficiency of the grid system because of our currently wasted nighttime base load.

    There are zero compelling reasons to use fuel cells. Give up on them already: that means giving up on hydrogen, too, which has its own special set of problems that we simply don't need on the road. Biodiesel from algae grown in our deserts on seawater (and optionally coupled with saltwater aquaculture of other food that people actually want to eat!) has the potential to replace our entire diesel fuel consumption and then some, and profitably, too.

  • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Monday September 13, 2010 @08:11AM (#33559836) Journal

    Why bother?

    For cars and heating? You wouldn't - it would be a stupid idea. For laptops and other mobile devices, it might make sense. You can make a hydrogen fuel cell a lot smaller than you can make a diesel turbine. More likely, however, you'd want to produce methanol, which can also be used in very small fuel cells but can be stored easily without needing to be kept under pressure. Interestingly, these are more efficient at around the temperature of a warm CPU, so you might end up with the methanol flowing in a pipe over your chips then cooling the waste water (or just dumping it) in future laptops.

    The main problem with using fuel cells (of any kind) in consumer electronics is that you can't recharge them at home, you need to buy the fuel to refill them. A small algae tank that could produce methanol would eliminate this problem and make it a much more attractive fuel source.

  • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Monday September 13, 2010 @09:09AM (#33560202) Journal
    Open source does not mean no-charge, it means that people who receive it are allowed to distribute copies. As long as they don't object if you start your own seminar series telling people the stuff that you learned and selling them starter kits based on their designs, then it's still open source.
  • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Monday September 13, 2010 @09:20AM (#33560292) Journal

    Batteries are improving faster than fuel cells, though.

    But methanol still has 15 times the energy density of the best Lithium-ion batteries, and about 5 times the energy density of LiS batteries (which currently die after so few charge cycles that they're not in use anywhere outside military UAVs).

    Except that practical methanol fuel cells are seemingly even further away than the hydrogen ones.

    The first functional cells were produced in 1990. They've been refined significantly since then and they are commercially available.

    Also, a methanol leak is immediately hazardous: the bad things in it can be absorbed through the skin and make you blind

    You need to consume 10ml to make you blind. Absorbing this much through your skin would be very difficult. It's volatile, so a small leak will disburse into the air, making it only dangerous in confined spaces.

    I'm just not seeing this EVER being allowed on public transportation, nor should it be.

    Better check the law. They've been allowed for a few years. Quoth Wikipedia (complete with citations, if you want to follow them):

    However, the International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) Dangerous Goods Panel (DGP) voted in November 2005 to allow passengers to carry and use micro fuel cells and methanol fuel cartridges when aboard airplanes to power laptop computers and other consumer electronic devices. On September 24, 2007, the US Department of Transportation issued a proposal to allow airline passengers to carry fuel cell cartridges on board[4]. The Department of Transportation issued a final ruling on April 30, 2008, permitting passengers and crew to carry an approved fuel cell with an installed methanol cartridge and up to two additional spare cartridges

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