NASA OMEGA Project: The Ocean as a Platform for Biofuel

Dr. Jonathan Trent works at NASA Ames Research Center, where he is the project scientist for OMEGA (Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae). OMEGA is a coastal marine system to produce biofuels, clean water, capture CO2, and expand food production. The goal is to deploy OMEGA worldwide using an “open source” model.


Why are biofuels not viewed as a viable alternative to fossil fuels?

Biofuels could be a long term, sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, but only if they are produced in sufficient quantities to meet the demand, with a price at the pump that people will tolerate, and without competing with agriculture for water, fertilizer, or land. These three issues of scale, economics, and competition with agriculture, are why people have lost faith in biofuels. But if there were a way to produce huge quantities of cheap biofuels that didn’t compete with food production, it would be a different story.

When I analyzed where we could produce biofuels and make it scalable, affordable and not compete with agriculture, I realized OMEGA is the answer. That is, we need to move offshore. More specifically, using photobioreactors floating in protected bays to grow microalgae on the wastewater from coastal cities currently dumped offshore. This way we address the issues of scale and competition with agriculture. Think about it. There’s plenty of space offshore and with sea level rise there will be new opportunities to make large-scale OMEGA systems.

The reason we focused on algae, is that they represent by far the biggest and most sustainable source of oil, compared to soybean, sunflower and palm oil. And using wastewater dumped offshore, solves the agriculture problems of water, fertilizer, and land. OMEGA clearly addresses two of the big three biofuels problems, so the big remaining problem is whether OMEGA can be affordable.

Since you last spoke at TED, how has the OMEGA project progressed?

I spoke at TED in June 2012 and in December I completed a three-year, $10.8 million feasibility study that was funded by NASA and the California Energy Commission. My TED talk is an overview of our accomplishments. The details will be published in a series of technical papers that are still in the works.

The goal is to share our results with everyone interested in developing OMEGA systems, so they can build on our accomplishments and won’t have to make the same mistakes we made. Given the desperate need for alternatives to fossil fuels and the potential of the OMEGA system, ideally everyone will share information to expedite OMEGA developments, exactly like an open source software development.

Since TED, I have also been looking for a way to go on to the next step of OMEGA, which I think is the deployment of a 1-acre demonstration of an integrated system floating in a protected bay somewhere. The integrated system includes algae cultivation for wastewater treatment and carbon capture, as well as electricity generation by solar. It also includes wind, wave power systems, and food production by a compatible aquaculture activity.


Artist’s conception of the integrated OMEGA system.

I have been talking to a lot of people at relevant organizations in various countries about the first deployment of an integrated OMEGA system. I think it’s critical to focus on an ocean deployment in a bay, not just to continue lab work. We can continue lab work for decades, but it’s important that we scale this up quickly and prove that it is commercially viable. This is not the way scientist usually work. Most scientists don’t solve problems, they colonize them and can study the subtleties of interesting problems for years. OMEGA is meant to address real-world problems and it must develop quickly.

I hope to be a part of this development, but OMEGA is not about me. What is important is that OMEGA projects start in many places to increase the rate of evolving functional systems so that others have models to follow.

What was NASA’s interest in the OMEGA project?

NASA has spent a lot of time and money developing what are called “life-support systems” to put people in places as inhospitable as outer-space, the moon or Mars. Mars, for example, is an environment completely hostile for us. To send people there we need to consider things we take for granted here, like air to breathe, water and food. In NASA terms, this is called closed life support systems. In these systems, waste is a verb and everything that we consider a waste product here on Earth is carefully scrutinized for its potential contribution to making food, clean water or energy.

life-support systems

OMEGA is a life-support system on Spaceship Earth. It takes advantage of the wastewater we waste by pumping it into the oceans. It transforms this wasted resource into a local energy source, which has huge implications for a lot of environmental issues as well as national security globally.

Why did you choose the ocean as the platform for OMEGA?

There is no alternative, considering the constraint that biofuels must be made from wastewater and considering where the sources of wastewater are located. Look, we know how much energy we have from the sun, in different part of the world and we know the efficiency of photosynthesis; we can calculate the Kilojoules per square meter per day (kJ/m2/da) output.

If we are generous about photosynthetic efficiency, which is on average <1%, but we assume it can be practically pushed to 5.6%, we can get about 500 kJ/m2/da from algae. All this embedded energy would be used up if we have to pump wastewater from cities out to some remote site where there is space to grow thousands of acres of algae. In other words, we cannot pump wastewater from our cities to algae ponds and we cannot build algae ponds inside our cities without destroying the urban infrastructure.

We might be able to build photobioreactors in our cities, but they have to be cooled on land, which is another waste of energy. OMEGA (offshore) is the only option. Besides, we already pump our wastewater offshore, it doesn’t impact urban infrastructure, and the floating photobioreactors are cooled by seawater. This obviously only works for coastal cities, the good news is that most major cities in the world are coastal.

OMEGA cannot be built just anywhere as the ocean is a pretty challenging environment. We focused on San Francisco bay, because we are based here (NASA Ames), but there are a lot of naturally protected bays around the world. As I said, with sea level rise, the opportunities will expand.

The OMEGA concept is to use algae to capture sunlight, take nutrients out of wastewater, and use CO2 from flue gas or other concentrated source from industry on shore.

You went for freshwater algae instead of salt water algae why?

The water source has to be from wastewater, which is freshwater in most countries. Algae grow on the nutrients in the wastewater, they also treat the wastewater. They remove the nitrogen and phosphate, the heavy metals, and many of the pharmaceuticals and other contaminants.

Another advantage to using freshwater algae, is that if the system leaks, it releases organisms into the ocean that cannot compete with marine species. This means we will not be releasing invasive species.

We know from experience that when resources are limiting and people get desperate, the environment suffers. OMEGA has a built in environmental sensitivity from the onset. The OMEGA structure will provide substrate for increased local biodiversity. Depending on its design, it can also provide a refuge for marine organisms.

The interview concluded as Jonathan shared thoughts with us about a recent visit to Japan and fascinating lectures he had given about the next step of human evolution in the age of the Anthropocene. He concluded our conversation with a quote:

“It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old system and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one.” Machiavelli (1469-1527)

(The views expressed here are solely those of Dr. Jonathan Trent in his personal capacity as a scientist and professor and do not in any way reflect the views of NASA or the U.S. government.)

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