Video + Story: Oil from manure-eating algae might one day heat our homes

Video shows how cow manure is converted into biofuel.

CHARLOTTE — The latest technology in biodiesel on display at Nordic Dairy Farm more closely resembled a high school science project. On a table, a tangle of clear pipes connected a series of large flasks that gurgled with green and brown liquids.

This was just a model, said GSR Solutions president Anju Dahiya, who headed up the year-long research effort. But the process is the same as the larger-scale version in which Nordic Farm manure will serve as food for algae, which then produces oil that can be refined into biofuel.

GSR Solutions, partnering with the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association (VFDA) and the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI), announced completion of a $51,000 USDA-funded Rural Business Enterprise Grant, bringing the state a step closer to making algae-derived biofuel a possible source of fuel.

The GSR solutions research team isolated an algae native to Vermont and grew it using the organic carbon waste from dairy farms and breweries. Under certain “stress conditions,” Dahiya said, some species of algae releases oil as a “bank balance for a rainy day.” That oil can be collected and refined to create a diesel-like fuel that can be used to heat homes, and fuel cars, trucks and airplanes.

At the farm Wednesday, a small crowd of researchers and contributors presented their findings to reporters, while flasks gurgled and a pungent smell of cow manure seeped in from an adjacent barn.

This, said Todd Campbell, energy adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, signifies progress.

“Being on the cutting edge here not only has implications for rural Vermont but really our interest at USDA is the win-win-win situation where we see positive results for the dairy operation, for the community and for the country as a whole,” Campbell said.

Even before GSR received the grant funds, researchers knew the process could work, said Christopher Smith, a research and development engineer for GSR Solutions. In the past few months, the team has increased the efficiency of the process, updated systems and technology used, and determined that it has a “positive return on energy.”

That’s a significant finding, according to the researchers. The fuel can be “dropped in” — used in furnaces and engines — without new technology changes.

The distillation process also produces animal feed or fertilizer as a byproduct. GSR researchers say that the fertilizer might help to reduce phosphorus runoff into Lake Champlain.

The process is expensive. Richard Altman, executive director of CAAFI, couldn’t give an exact figure, but he said believes cost parity with oil can be achieved within a decade.

Matt Cota, executive director of the fuel dealers group, says the initiative has potential because Vermont has the highest density of cows per acre of any state in the U.S. and half of Vermonters heat with oil.

Altman dubbed Nordic Farms “ground zero, the Garden of Eden,” of biofuel research. Nordic Farms was selected for its proximity to UVM, its location along U.S. 7 as a major thoroughfare, and for property owner Clark Hinsdale’s commitment to cutting-edge technology.

The most recent findings are a first step, researchers say.

In the next year, GSR hopes to secure the necessary funding to start a pilot project. The group wants to build two greenhouses to grow the algae and a central processing facility at Nordic Farm. Over the next several years, GSR hopes to test the algae fuel’s viability on a larger scale.

“The big question ahead of us is can we get to cost parity,” Cota said. VFDA members have pledged to distribute 100 percent renewable heating oil by 2050. Algae-made biofuel has the potential to be a major source of renewable oil, he said.

The specifics, however, remain largely speculative. How much the process would reduce carbon use or emissions has not been determined and there are no concrete figures on what a full-scale operation would cost.

Ideally, the biofuel processing would remain local, speakers agreed, based at farms like Nordic Farm.

“You want to scale it up to some point, but not necessarily a huge scale, and that’s what makes it so exciting,” said Mark Blanchard, an adviser for Vermont Small Business Development Corp. “When you aggregate all these small pots, you end up with a lot of energy.”

“Right now, we have fuel trucks bringing fuel to the farms,” Cota said. “We’d like to reverse that process.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that UVM graduate students participated in the research.

Rich Altman of Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative speaks at a news conference Wednesday at Nordic Farms in Charlotte to discuss a new biofuel manufacturing effort. Photo by Cory Dawson/VTDigger

Rich Altman of Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative speaks at a news conference Wednesday at Nordic Farms in Charlotte to discuss a new biofuel manufacturing effort. Photo by Cory Dawson/VTDigger

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  • Moshe Braner

    “The specifics, however, remain largely speculative.”

    And to us readers, even more so, since the article gave almost no info on what is really involved here. Algae are plants, they normally grow on sunlight, capturing solar energy by converting CO2 to O2 and organic matter. There have been proposals to supply algae with nutrients (e.g., from sewage), or extra CO2 (e.g., from a power plant), to help them grow at their optimum rate, BUT, if the energy (not nutrient) source is sunlight, then the collectable sunlight is the ultimate limiting factor.

    To grow a lot of them you need to spread them thin over a large area (as in a shallow pond) and hope for no clouds. And good luck keeping that large area free from other organisms that would outcompete (or eat) your carefully chosen oily algae. What do you say, bubble your algae soup through plastic pipes to keep them clean? Pie dreams indeed. You’d need acres of pipes, good luck with the net carbon thing let alone the cost.

    Or did they (genetically?) engineer algae that, instead of photosynthesizing, use existing energy-rich organic matter (manure) for their metabolism? No mention of that. Then why algae rather than bacteria?

    And even if that works great, how about some numbers: suppose that ALL the manure from Vermont cows would be used this way, how much fuel could be produced? Need some estimate, before declaring this a “fundamental shift”. Remember how we were all going to fuel our cars with “waste” cooking oil? Turns out that there’s only that much of it to go around. Whowuddathunk.

  • Bill Olenick

    Many organic farmers rely on manure so if this process takes off and all the farmers go to bio-manuisl where will the states organic farmers go to get their manure..out of state mega farms?

  • Peter Everett

    If this is true that manure could be converted to oil, Vermont could become energy independent from the rest of the world. Just think, all the manure (crap) that is spoken in the Statehouse could be made into a useful byproduct for the residents.
    Oops, forgot, they would tax it at a ridiculously high rate so we couldn’t afford to buy it. They would probably market it as “Pure Crap Straight from your leaders”.

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