SRP and ASU come together for carbon capture
Can algae, that murky green growth you sometimes see by a stream, by a lake or in a swimming pool, help mitigate carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants?
That’s a question SRP and Arizona State University researchers are trying to answer as they look to find new and better ways to control carbon emissions, demonstrate environmental stewardship for a sustainable future and comply with federal regulations.
“It’s a key question that we must all work to resolve,” said Chico Hunter, Manager, Environmental Policy & Innovation.
The SRP-funded research, still in its early stages, is centered on carbon-capture studies at Coronado Generating Station (CGS) near St. Johns, Arizona, with the possible side benefit of growing algae for commercial purposes.
The algae research is one of many such collaborations SRP has initiated through grant funds with ASU researchers to see how power and water delivery processes might be improved. Tom Dempster, ASU Associate Research Professor and Lab Manager for the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation at the university’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa, is leading the effort to find ways for algae to be used to capture carbon. This would involve removing carbon dioxide from the flue gas, which would help reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired or natural-gas-fired plants. (Click image below for Fox 10’s coverage of the collaboration).
“The collaboration with SRP has provided an incredible opportunity for ASU students and researchers to work with top-notch SRP personnel to advance carbon capture technology and explore valuable co-products from the resulting biomass production,” Dempster said.
Algae grows through photosynthesis and consumes carbon dioxide as part of the process. Fossil fuel power plants emit carbon dioxide, which will be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Power Plan. The idea is to see if it’s possible to use the algae to capture emissions from a power plant’s flue gas, which is emitted during the course of generating energy, as a combustion byproduct.
After initial research on multiple strains, ASU researchers are now synthesizing viable algae strains in conditions that mimic the flue gas emitted from the plant. A later step is to move from the lab to the power plant to see under what conditions the algae would survive and, more important, be most effective.
Sam Villalobos, Senior Engineer, Plant Technical Support, said they are currently synthesizing flue gas to mimic the conditions at CGS.
“If the algae survives in the synthesized gas, we will explore ways to transport actual flue gas samples from CGS to the ASU lab,” Villalobos said. “This will be our next step in determining if the algae can survive under the actual conditions at the plant.”
The goal is to see how much carbon dioxide and other combustion byproducts are present and whether algae would be able to absorb the carbon emissions and survive under those conditions.
Besides the carbon capture, Villalobos said they are looking to see whether algae, which has tremendous commercial value, could be sold after being grown in this fashion. Algae uses include helping make livestock feed more nutritious, being used as an ingredient in pharmaceutical products and removing certain power plant wastewater pollutants.
“We’re not at the point of installing a pilot project at the power plant quite yet, but we need to explore the possibilities now to see what the future might hold,” Villalobos said.
That eventually may mean a stream of flue gas being piped out of the power plant up to an algae pond.
The study is funded through an SRP grant to the Advanced Technology Innovation Center at ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering at the Polytechnic campus. SRP initiated the funding program in 2012 to leverage the expertise of ASU researchers on important utility issues. The collaboration also gives the professors and students exposure to the challenges facing the utility industry. This promotes better training for future utility engineers.
Other projects include using drones to conduct aerial surveys of canals to look for obstructions or right-of-way intrusions. This could be more efficient than using staff in trucks to cover the 131-mile-long network.
Hunter said there’s value in partnering on such projects with ASU researchers even if not every project turns out as hoped. Students and professors provide an outside perspective and creativity that may lead to solutions in other areas or produce ideas for new research projects.
“These projects can help create solutions with a real impact on the environment and our ability to operate in a more sustainable manner,” Hunter said. “They’re worth the exploration.”
(Featured image: ASU Research Technician Mary Cuevas conducts algae research at the ASU Polytechnic Campus in Mesa, Arizona. Photo Credit: Patty Garcia-Likens)