Instructables

Solar-powered algae bioreactor

Step 1: Finished bioreactor

Picture of Finished bioreactor
I apologize for not getting any pictures during construction of my solar-powered algae bioreactor, but I only decided to make an instructable out of it after the fact. There are many diy's about making biodiesel out of oil, and algae has been discussed far and wide as a great source of vegetable oil for conversion. However, I've only seen a few homebrew solutions for actually GROWING the algae. There's a great one here on instructables, but it uses CO2 bottles to provide the algae with the carbon dioxide which they need to grow. As a proof of concept that's fine, but I don't think it makes any sense in the long run -- bottled CO2 is probably more expensive both cash-wise and environmentally than the algae grown from it. There's CO2 available in the air, but only a flat, shallow pool of water has adequate surface area to absorb enough CO2 for algae growth. Here's my solution: a solar-powered small aquarium air pump, which aerates the water inside a five-gallon water bottle. Notice that the water is cloudy after only a couple of days; that's the algae starting to grow. If you look closely you can clearly see the air bubbles which prove that the air pump is still running; the sun has set on the system in this early-evening shot, but the rechargeable batteries are keeping the pump running.
rbneville4 years ago
Instead of using bottleed co2 you could ferment sugar water to create co2.
The alcohol will kill the algae and could trigger a population crash.
actually again depending on the algea. there are type(s) that thrive in the the production vats. just ask coors an budwieser abut it.
I think he's referring to having a separate container w/ some sugar and yeast in it, with a tube running from that container into the algae bottle. The evolved CO2 would pressurize that container and maybe not even need a pump to bubble through the algae bottle. It's an interesting thought, but I would have to keep the fermentation chamber supplied w/ sugar and get rid of the alky somehow. Though the biodiesel conversion does require alcohol.....maybe I could build a solar still and buy sugar to make my own alcohol instead of buying the alcohol? Refined sugar is very cheap.
I see. So if one brewed beer that could provide a supplemental source of CO2, as could the fermentation output from the tanks of a registered small fuel producer.
bignema1 year ago
ok just read the entire thread ....some good ideas...some bad.... firstly why bother with solar ???? a regular sized aquirium pump consumes 25 watts ... it will have to run for 40 hours to cost you a single unit of electricity (1kw) ...not worth the polava ... secondly for lighting use LEDS .... white,red and blue ... also next to no cost on your bill !!! .... as for CO2 .... have two ponds adjacent to each other ..... 1 for algae that emitt o2 ... the other fish .. (algae eaters) ..that emitt co2 ... feed the fish algae biomass waste ... have an air pump running in each .... closed eco system of sorts ... was thinking of setting up with talipia ...good fish to eat! using a windmill to stir up water on windy days...just a thought
algaefan2 years ago
Does anybody know where I can supply algae starter culture to make biodiesel in England or in Europe? As I understood the best strain is either diesilna or scenedesmus, and dieselina is difficult to grow. Is that right? Thanks
spphhbki3 years ago
you say to me

how much algae we produced by these bioreactor
middlenamefrank (author)  spphhbki3 years ago
I didn't get any, sorry to say. I may try again someday but I doubt it....I've been working with silicon solar cells lately and having a lot of fun. I think algae may have more promise long-term -- it consumes carbon dioxide as it creates fuel -- but the solar cells are much more direct in creating usable power. It's a lot easier to work with on a smaller scale; there's no need to process it, convert to a usable fuel and THEN use it to make power.
GodOfGreen4 years ago
You're correct in thinking that bottled CO2 is a waste, but it works for many companies because the algae grown can be worth $$$$/kg. In Germany, Factories with operations that produce CO2 use bioreactors to mitigate their pollution and sell off the algae as product. Just cool the CO2 exhaust before pumping it into the algae-they are sensitive to temperature. That said, your pH needs to be monitored closely as you inject CO2. The CO2 dissolved in the water will create a carbonic acid, lowering your pH and killing your algae. Another thing to note is that algae needs photosynthesis to grow. Optimum depth of solution should be 6-10cm. You can grow in a water bottle, but not to high density. Before a inoculating a large water bottle, the algae needs to be grown to optimum density in smaller containers. Gradually algae bioreactors move up in size, as the amount of inoculum needs to be 1/4 the volume of your container, to allow for further growth. If you simply throw algae in with nutrients in a large container, many more things can grow with the algae, and very possibly overtake it. Healthy algal growth is seen as a pleasant green, no foaming or floating debris. Get a simple microscope, and you can see the ratio of algae to predators. Chlorine in small doses can leave an environment clean of predators, and free for algae to grow well. It can hurt algae, but in higher doses. Nitrates and phosphates are your nutrients needed for algae, they're cheap and easy, and every algae likes slightly different ratios; don't use any animal droppings, please. Hope this helps, and I like your solar powered pump :)
"don't use any animal droppings, please."

Why do you say this? Algae grow perfectly in lakes, ponds, streams and other sources where the primary nutrients come from aquatic life waste and soil.
I already explained why. Any number of contaminating factors may be present in animal droppings. Instead of helping the algae grow, you can just begin a cesspool. If nothing else, because it's gross. Your point about aquatic life waste is correct, of course, as long as the mitigation of waste by corresponding aquatic plants and fish are monitored. Perhaps I could rephrase that for "land animal droppings," lol. The irony of the algae farm is that, though algae appears to grow easily without any assistance or problems naturally, there's actually much more than meets the eyes. What you see in a lake could be several different species of algae trying to outgrow eachother. While the waters may be densely green, not one of the species would be of adequate density to be of any use to anyone. Creating a healthy algae "bloom" for any farm application, requires a deal of work including monitoring the introduction of specific levels of sterile nutrients and measuring the amount of sunlight received by each algae cell, or PAR should be kept to 400-700nm (PAR, PhAR: photosynthetical active radiation), pH Values and temperatures must be monitored constantly and kept to specs for the culture grown.
Here's what I mean: See the two pictures? The large algae production is a aerial shot of an algae farm in Taiwan. It has 43 biologists and an entire crew underneath them to monitor the health of the 10 cm depth, 76 acre open system. They bleed in chlorine and CO2 at different points, trying to keep the numbers of predators at bay. They closely monitor the amounts of everything added to the system, and at no point would they allow the addition of any more uncontrolled anomalies. The size must be immense order to produce enough algae to be worth the cost of the farm operation. The other photo is a 10 liter high density algae bioreactor in our lab. It receives the ideal light 24/7 and grows the same amount of algae as a 1 acre open pond. The algae is free of contaminates, and the pH, Temperature, density, and nutrient levels are monitored by a small computer.
As for obtaining a particular strain, and its specific nutrients and growth conditions, I recommend anyone to visit these two sites:
www.utex.org
www.oilgae.com
Controlled High Density Bioreactor.jpgTaiwan BioPlant.jpg
middlenamefrank (author)  GodOfGreen3 years ago
How is the light provided to your bioreactor? If it's generated electrically, how does that effect the power balance? i.e. what fraction of the power represented in the oil harvested get offset by the need to create the illumination? Of course it would be a moot point if there was a solar collection system to power it....a couple of solar panels could power the unit for harvest after harvest. Even just some reflectors and a variable shutter would be able to use sunlight when it's available.

Of course I have no chance of getting very close to ideal growth conditions in my silly homebaked experiment. Then again, maybe I don't need to. A commercial operation needs to be highly optimized but my backyard tank doesn't necessarily need to be. It's possible I could grow some algae, make a little bit of biodiesel, fire up a generator once in a while and generate some free power to help offset my electrical bill.
I think the long pole in your tent isn't going to be growing the algae, its going to be converting it to biodiesel. The algal conversion isn't the same as that used for vegetable fats and involves much more complexity.

If you're ultimate goal is simply to produce biodiesel you might be better to to plant a small plot of rapeseed, corn or other high content oil bearing plants which can be readily converted.

Also consider waste oil from local eateries. In most locations they have to pay to have their grease hauled away. If you're prepared to pick it up weekly and give them $50 a month for the privilege you can probably have a virtually unlimited supply of feedstock.
I've already done the conversion, several times. it's a pretty simple reaction and not difficult to learn. Even the titration process is reasonably straightforward.

From what I've read, I don't believe there is any difference in oil from algae or any plant source as far as the conversion process is concerned. Extraction is a bit more difficult with algae but from what I've read there are relatively simple and cheap solvent processes (such as hexane extraction) that can be used.

As far as restaurant waste oil is concerned, been there done that. It's yucky, smelly, nasty stuff, the storage cans are very heavy and invariably filthy, it requires a ton of filtering and processing to get ready for the conversion, and it's not worth the time and energy. Worst of all it's boring.

Rape does grow pretty well in my area (San Diego) but it's nowhere near as space efficient as algae. I could devote a pretty large flower bed to it and not harvest enough oil to be worth talking about. But my real objection is again that it's boring. I know how to grow weeds. I just want to know if it's possible to easily grow algae in my back yard, and I have no intention of actually using it -- I don't own a diesel generator and have no intention of buying one. People like GodOfGreen are busy making commercial grade hardware, I just want to know if there's a cheap, easy, fairly effective version for home use. If my solar powered rig ever works, I could say it's CONCEIVABLE that someday I could grow my own fuel oil in my backyard. I'll never do it, but I could.
I'm very interested in what progress you make in this area. I think the process for algae is different but would be fascinated to hear about practical application. Don't you folks have an aquarium down there? I suspect if you were to contact the aquarium they have algae in abundance which they are trying desperately to get rid of....
I just wanted to show the two extremes. I didn't get into the full process, because that would take up tens of pages, even abridged. This small bioreactor is the ultra high end, and isn't commercially viable unless it's an 8000 Liter model using the CO2 emissions from a production plant. It does make perfect sen$e when the algae grown is used for coloring, EFAs, DHA, cosmetic products, and food additive. BioDiesel has not been cost effective, save for one project in AZ. That one broke the bottleneck on biodiesel manufacturing at a natural gas power plant! It was funded entirely as a Dept of Energy , NETL program. But, the DOE called it quits last March, after the local utility went bankrupt and fired all it's chief staff. There's another mysterious crate in the Indiana Jones locker...
Anyway, you can grow algae for a variety of home uses, very cost effectively.
Maybe I should write an instructable? In a nutshell, research the species you want to use. Know its ideal pH, temperature, and nutrient needs. Depending on its purpose, you can grow the algae under different conditions. Using a basic kiddie pool and some pool supplies (like a pH and Temperature reader, and maybe an aquarium or fountain pump for agitation-this is why your solar pump is neat), you can get by easily. To harvest, you can scoop out the algae with a net, as long as you are not growing microalgae. If you are going to grow microalgae, or prefer a complete harvest, stop the pump for an hour, and let the algae settle to the bottom. Then, scoop the algae to the drain plug and spread the "soup" onto cookie sheets. let them dry in the sun. It's fully dry when you see the algae as flakes. Scrape it off and grind it up into a powder. Next, you may add it to a chemistry set to get its extract or take it to the biodeisel refinement (a note on this, if going to biodiesel, it will initially be a crude black green oil-under analysis only a portion of the carbon chains will be usable biodiesel, and they'll need to be separated. The rest can be used for lubricant or cooking oils). You can just use the powder or soup for any number of applications- fertilizer, skin moisturizer, food coloring, healthy food, (it all depends on the method and species grown). To minimize predators and bacteria, you may add Cl at 10PPM (every so often), and even throw a greenhouse liner over the top(open it every now and then to prevent O2 poisoning). Carbon can come from CO2 injection or the nutrients (an ingredient like baking soda). BTW, Carbon from waste requires larger farms, and applications that never mind a little poop in the sauce.
The main thing is the research on the strain you want to grow- there are 30,000 known species, and 10,000 of them have been studied for applications :)
There are also any number of ways to grow and harvest Algae. But this way I just described is the easiest and most sterile backyard project off the top of my head.
"it will initially be a crude black green oil-under analysis only a portion of the carbon chains will be usable biodiesel, and they'll need to be separated"

Can you expand on this process? I have obtained and dried algae which serves quite adequately as a fertilizer component in my compost heap.

It is my understanding that this is a non trivial process and that it requires 200 proof ethanol as opposed to the traditional methanol used in western biodiesel. While there are numerous sites that provide detailed instructions on every aspect of the production of biodiesel from traditional feedstock I can't find anything on the actual process of producing biodiesel from algae.

Any additional information you can provide would be appreciated.
Algae oil extraction varies according to the project. What I mean is that the lipid extraction results vary greatly according to the species and the conditions that they're grown in, so nobody wants to put it out there to just get people complaining that their oil is bad...
Oil extraction from algae differs because it first involves cracking the cells. Micro algae is desirable because it doubles in numbers every two hours! But, it leads to a problem when trying to get lipids out. Micro algae is smaller than bacteria, so the good 'ol mill method won't work. If the extraction takes too long from the harvest, the algae may begin to break down their lipids for energy, killing your oil content. Then, if the cell cracking is too agitated, the algae cells can burn. And, oil extraction is tough to do thoroughly in a chem lab in amounts over 1 tablespoon of dried algae...
So, you can see the obstacles the greatest minds in the world must overcome to make algae harvests into biodiesel harvests, and at the low low cost of an oil barrel!
To Do and extraction- I'll need to either make an instructable.. or maybe just send you a list of chem supplies and where to get them. Hexane extraction is the popular method to start with, but we made some pretty dandy results in an esterification with two different solvents. Lastly, there was a pretty good idea for doing mass amounts of algae in a pressurized system with butane as the solvent.
Give me a few days, though. I'm too stuffed after Thanksgiving to spend more than a minute or two at the computer....
I agree that cost effective oil extraction is also a key problem. My question was regarding the post-extraction process about which I can find very little.
daa58495 years ago
Wont the blue tint of the bottle significantly decrease the amount of useable light that reaches the water?
middlenamefrank (author)  daa58493 years ago
Actually I was kind of hoping for that....from what I've read, the algae likes heat but not too much light. Direct sun is usually too strong and can actually kill the algae, which is why you find algae growing in ponds in shady areas like under overhanging trees. I've wondered if too much light caused my first unit to fail.
stevepuk4 years ago
Could you add a schematic for the solar charging unit? Did you manage to get oil from the algae? If you use cat litter be careful what you do with the water, Toxoplasmosis sounds nasty to me.
middlenamefrank (author)  stevepuk3 years ago
The schematic isn't worth posting, it consists of only the solar panel, a Schottky diode and the NiMH batteries....and it was inadequate, the pump burned out. I agree the kitty litter idea is pretty gross, and would introduce a huge amount of probably competitive flora which would not be good for the algae. It just seemed like the ultimate recycler's dream, to recycle waste like that. Maybe if I composted it, it would heat up enough to eventually kill off the bad stuff, like a garden compost heap does?
middlenamefrank (author) 3 years ago
Just a quick update: the pump quit working after a few weeks, and I tossed it rather than fixing it. It was a pretty bad eyesore in my back yard and the girlfriend hated it. For some reason, when the pump failed there was no algae growing at all, but AFTER the pump quit, some algae started to grow. I'm guessing the aeration may have been adding too much oxygen, and killing the algae? Or perhaps GodOfGreen is right, maybe I had too much CO2 and it lowered the pH.

The original idea with the electrics, though I am an EE, was to provide almost constant pumping without making a full-on solar panel/charging circuit/battery combo. I'm not really an expert on small DC motors but I think they don't like running at voltages much higher OR lower than their rated voltage -- the little 1.5V motor in the pump might burn out if it was running for extended periods at 3.0V or 1.0V. I was hoping that a very simple combination of solar panel, Schottky diode and NiMH battery would be adequate to provide a voltage near to 1.5V continuously....but it wasn't. The motor wound up burning out anyhow.

I've given some thought of doing the full-on design, with a proper charging circuit, high/low voltage cutouts and all, but I don't think it would be worth it. As I said, algae was NOT growing until the pump failed, so there was something basic wrong with my setup, and I'm not inclined to try again until I understand it better.
iPodGuy5 years ago
Cat litter box waste? You're trying to grow algae, not bacteria. Take a scoop from a pond or lake.
middlenamefrank (author)  iPodGuy5 years ago
Cat box litter would be used as a free source of nutrients, not as growing stock.
You are correct, litter is an excellent source of nutrients. The Alabama Algae Farm Study focuses on catfish ponds as a breeding reactor.
day-veed3 years ago
I don't see the point in using batteries to store a charge. The algae won't photosythesise and take in CO2 when no light is available (basically at night) so it would not be necessary to aerate at night. Pls correct me.
The batteries serve to ensure that power is available for the 18/6 cycle that algae prefer. Although this design doesn't incorporate a timer it would be a useful addition.

Also I haven't examined the circuit in detail but it probably needs a couple of zener diodes to provide overcharge protection.
This is a really outstanding piece of work, it goes extremely well with my


http://www.instructables.com/id/Simple-Algae-Home-CO2-Scrubber-Part-1/

Keep up the good work....

You might also be interested in my Aluminum air battery stuff, you can leverage this design to generate power from soda cans and saltwater....

sloth4564 years ago
I'm really impressed by your efforts, keep going dude.  I'd love to see a fully functioning system for extracting the oil from it too.
Gee, why not make beer to create CO2? LOL
Two marketable products!
servant744 years ago
What streign of algae is a good oil/lipid producer? How / where can I get some to try using a 'better' streign?
"dieselina" is the major biodiesel producer- go figure, huh? oh, ummm- it's a pain to grow and keep healthy, so it'll never work. Instead, go with another strain, like scenedesmus and fatten it up. Algae can get fat with lipids by manipulating your nutrient delivery times. Pick up a book on algae culturing techniques. Aquaculture libraries in Texas, or Mass. or Maine should be able to send you cultures in gel tubes.
"dieselina" is the major biodiesel producer- go figure, huh? oh, ummm- it's a pain to grow and keep healthy, so it'll never work. Instead, go with another strain, like scenedesmus and fatten it up. Algae can get fat with lipids by manipulating your nutrient delivery times. Pick up a book on algae culturing techniques. Aquaculture libraries in Texas, or Mass. or Maine should be able to send you cultures in gel tubes.
PKM5 years ago
Cool- this would be a good part of the algae-oil-biodiesel process I'd love to see more of, and it's nice and simple to boot. Do you have any idea how much algae it will produce under good conditions? Will you need to start adding plant nutrient or soil water to the bottle eventually? Also, what strain of algae are you planning to use once it's running?
middlenamefrank (author)  PKM5 years ago
Excellent questions, but I'm afraid my answers won't be very satisfying. 1) I wouldn't know where to begin calculating that, it would be a wild guess at best. 2) I did add some grass fertilizer, I have no idea whether that was productive or not. For all I know it had an algaecide in it. 3) I haven't even looked at that yet. Do you have something in mind?
I don't have anything specific in mind- I'd just like to experiment with a similar device. I wasn't expecting calculations for 1), just how much weight of algae you can strain out of it every X days. If you haven't run it for long enough to extract any algae yet then I wasn't expecting numbers yet.
middlenamefrank (author)  PKM5 years ago
I plan on posting results when and if I get any. For some reason it seems to have halted at the pale haze stage for a couple of days now. I'm not sure if it doesn't like the direct sunlight (I've read they prefer indirect light so I may rig up some sort of translucent screening for the bottle), maybe there's not enough nutrients in the water, or maybe the bubbling is too much agitation. But then, that's really why I built it, to tinker with stuff like that and see what it takes to grow algae efficiently in a backyard setting.