Algae power takes off at airport

by Published Fri 27 Mar 2009 12:35
Algae power to keep the lights on

Airport chiefs are powering up with pond life after scientists discovered a way of transforming algae into energy.

Environmental managers at Liverpool John Lennon airport are installing the groundbreaking technology to power the terminal building, fuel their fleet of ground-based vehicles and eventually refine aviation-grade fuel.

The pioneering system uses tanks of CO2-busting algae to produce biofuel from the air breathed out by passengers and airport workers.

Researchers believe the miracle science of the microscopic slime will generate enough energy to help power the lights, heating and machinery used in the terminal building.

And they hope to produce more than 3,000 litres of biofuel-a-day, enough to fill up the tanks of their ground-based fleet of baggage trucks, transfer coaches and maintenance vehicles.

The system was developed by former army tank gunner Ian Houston, 38, and a team of scientists at his Cheshire-based company.

The married father-of-three, who saw active service in Bosnia and Iraq with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, says he used his military training and ballistics'Â? experience to help lead the research development.

Houston says the process is based on the simple manipulation of air-flow, which he studied from the firing of a tank's cannon.

Following the six-month trial at Liverpool John Lennon airport, Houston says his company's Ecobox technology could be installed in shopping malls, stadiums and large office blocks to trap waste CO2 and turn it into sustainable energy.

Waste CO2 from air handling units on the airport's terminal building will be filtered through high-tech sea-water tanks containing algae. The CO2 will be absorbed by the plant cells, boosting its growth to a point where it can be refined to produce biofuel on an industrial scale.

The airport plans to use the resulting biofuel to run its ground-based vehicles, while the waste biomass produced by the refining process will be passed through a drying process and fed into a burner which will supply a proportion of the airport's energy needs.

Developers say the trial will initially produce 250 litres of biofuel but will install a larger version of the Ecobox capable of producing up to 3,000 litres a day.

"I have used the principles taught and learnt from the Army and applied them to a different set of problems. Personally I don't see it as saving the planet, just contributing to the solution of what is a global problem,"said Houston.

"A lot of this is really about engagement, which is the first hurdle to cross - we need to engage with the public and explain how they can make a contribution that does not impede their daily life.

"Couple this with a financial benefit for the public and hopefully we will succeed in engaging them."

Houston says his military background has proved invaluable in the corporate world of science and technology research.

"Tactics are a big piece of the jigsaw," he added. "The armed forces teach you to think through a situation and plan for how you will come up with a workable solution to a problem that exists today.

"It's much more practical than theoretical and I've applied that same logic to carbon capture. I've concentrated on keeping the project moving closer to its goal. This means that if something didn't work, then we either disregarded it or adjusted it, so we haven't wasted time over-analysing why something didn't work and filling in reams of reports on this and getting bogged down with the theory.

"An R&D; department in any global company would be producing reams of reports on each aspect of a project like this, but in my mind that's not what's important here. After all, having a solution that works in practice is far more important than having one that works in theory.

"The project at John Lennon Airport is an early trial of a system which we believe could have a significant impact on the way companies today can obtain fuel and manage carbon emissions. If it works there, then why not anywhere?

"We are a young company, hungry to attack the challenge of CO2 reduction and just as passionate about proving that reducing CO2 is the foundation of a successful business. Forward thinking companies, like John Lennon Airport, realise that mitigating an environmental impact and saving money can go hand in hand."

And bosses at the airport are excited about the potential of the technology.

"We get a lot of projects across our desk, but this is by far the best we've encountered so far," said Andrew Dutton, the airport's head of environment. "This provides everyone with a win-win solution, there are simply no downsides to the potential of this system.

"It is perfect for us as we are committed to being at the forefront of technology and to reducing the environmental impact of air travel wherever practical. The Airport Company is extremely interested in both current and potential future technical options and initiatives that could help to mitigate our environmental impact. Origo's carbon capture and recycling technology is potentially a huge step in the right direction for the airport and the environment."

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