Ninety-eight interconnected tubes of what appears to be a green, bubbling goo sit inside the greenhouse behind the Center for Applied Energy Research lab at the University of Kentucky.
The goo might not look like much to a casual observer, but it could be one important answer to the nation's energy problem — it's carbon-dioxide-devouring algae. And it can be used to sequester the harmful greenhouse gas and thus make coal a more environmentally responsible option.
The algae research is a partnership between East Kentucky Power Cooperative, UK and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. The project started a little more than two years and about $2 million ago.
"We started with algae in petri dishes," said Czarena Crofcheck, a UK faculty member in the department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering who's working on the project.
"The project is an example of how our partnerships ... can advance clean energy in the commonwealth," said Kentucky Energy Secretary Len Peters. He sees coal as an undeniable and unavoidable fact of energy use in Kentucky and the nation.
"It's important to use the state's resources in an environmentally sensitive way," he said.
That's why "aggressive carbon sequestration" projects, like the algae solution, are so important to research, he said.
Crofcheck credits the state with being proactive in coming to the university to stay ahead of federal regulations in carbon-dioxide mitigation.
As the algae grows, it takes in light and carbon dioxide to create food for itself, the same way a plant does in photosynthesis, Crofcheck said. The tubes provide a productive environment in which the algae can grow quickly and constantly. In so doing, it removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When placed near coal plants, the algae can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that remains in the environment.
Next week, the algae tubes will be moved to a power plant in Clark County. This will be the algae's first real-world test, Crofcheck said. The tubes should start reducing the carbon-dioxide emissions of the Dale Power Station owned by East Kentucky Power. The test will start with 135 tubes, but officials hope to have 10 times that by early next year.
The next step will be determining what to do with the algae the process produces, Crofcheck said. Technology exists to convert algae oil into liquid fuels such as diesel. Algae could also be used for feed. But no one has enough algae to determine whether these processes are financially feasible or practical in other ways. That's a question for further down the line, Crofcheck said.
"Our main focus has been the CO2 mitigation," Crofcheck said. "We want growth. The byproduct is that we have a lot of algae."