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Scot Comey believes old mills in places like Pawtucket can be turned into incubators for strains of algae that can be grown without sunlight and turned into home heating oil.

“In six months to a year, if someone started, in earnest, a gigantic algae-producing farm indoors, they could be producing oil by this spring,” says Comey, 46, the holder of a degree in plant and soil science, and founder of the Energy Innovation Group, a Rhode-Island based grassroots effort to develop renewable fuels. 

Algae grown without sunlight can be grown year-round, without displacing any conventional agriculture. Comey sees in it potential to bring some truly unconventional “acreage” into bio-fuel development.

“We could put a 1000-gallon tank in your basement seeded with algae,” he says. “A sensor would go off, letting us know when it’s ready for harvest. We send a truck over — we’ve already got two oil companies that are willing to do this with us. They collect the algae, take it to the processing plant, make the oil, and we either store it for you, or bring it back to your house.” 

Grown-in-the-dark algae needs to be fed something to replace the energy forgone from sunlight, and the energy required to produce a food source must be included in any projections of the algae’s viability as a source of heating oil.

One hope is that energy-dense “cellulosic” crops, tillable on lands unsuitable for normal agriculture, can be created in conjunction with algaes that will feed on them directly, facilitating a beginning-to-end, non-energy-intensive process for turning dry material into liquid fuel. 

Algal oil has yet to be produced on an industrial-scale; a test by Massachusetts-based GreenFuel Technologies was halted last year, reportedly after the algae started growing faster than it could be processed. 

But Comey and others believe that oil-producing algae holds too much promise to ignore.

Researchers working with sunlit-grown algae believe that an acre of pond water may be able to produce about 10,000 gallons of algal oil per-acre, per-year. If that’s right, a pond system with a surface area about one-fourth the size of Narragansett Bay could provide the entire 150 to 200 million gallons of heating oil consumed annually in Rhode Island.

And that may be just the beginning; claims of potential oil yields of 100,000 gallons per-acre, per-year have recently been put forth, based on the concept of vertically stacked containers for growing algae.   

Comey and his Energy Innovation Group are not wedded to any particular technology. Their philosophy is to do whatever works.

They are experimenting with a 275-gallon system that’s growing algae with sunlight, constructing a prototype grow-in-the-dark incubator, and are ready to move to larger facilities, as soon as they assemble adequate funding.
Their approach is to get underway, then refine the process to handle new and different algaes and food sources as they are developed. With the proper ingredients, “This is low-tech stuff,” Comey says. “This can be done right now.”

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  Topics: This Just In , Biology, Life Sciences, Microbiology,  More more >
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