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Abby Schwimmer
Central Heating Plant

Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Last modified: Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Algae project at IU Central Heating Plant searches for new ways to curb carbon dioxide emissions

March 11, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When it comes to cutting its carbon footprint, the Indiana University Central Heating Plant is not afraid to step outside the bounds of traditional methods. While the plant uses mechanical means to limit emissions of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and mercury, research at the Central Heating Plant is now exploring ways to use algae to absorb excess carbon dioxide emitted in flue gases.


Researcher Richard Wagner with vats of algae fed with flue gases from the IU Central Heating Plant

For the past year, Richard Wagner, director and CEO of Phylein, a natural oil and biofuels production firm with operations in Indiana and Florida, has been conducting research at the Central Heating Plant to determine the viability of recycling carbon dioxide with algae. Burning fossil fuels such as coal releases large amounts of CO2, but algae may be able to reduce the emissions.

"Algae are photosynthetic organisms that naturally absorb CO2," Wagner said. "In simple terms, through photosynthesis light energy from the sun is converted to chemical energy in the algae. This chemical energy is used to convert the CO2 absorbed from the air into simple sugars that the algae use as food for energy or as building blocks for other complex molecules or structures. Our goal is to recycle this gas through the algae to produce useful products."

When carbon dioxide is inhaled in high concentrations, it has known negative human-health effects. In addition, the gas traps energy radiated off of the earth's surface, contributing to global warming. In light of these harmful impacts, the Central Heating Plant has been searching for ways to minimize the adverse effects on the environment resulting from carrying out its essential function -- providing round-the-clock heating for the IU campus.

Over the coming months, Wagner will be growing vats of algae, pumping different concentrations of carbon dioxide through them, and then measuring their response. Primarily, his research will focus on issues of efficiency and viability -- that is, how well the algae stand up to such a heavy influx of carbon dioxide and other contaminants in flue gas.

"We must learn how to produce energy in the country in a sustainable manner," said Mark Menefee, IU assistant director for utilities. "Hopefully this research will provide a valuable contribution to future energy generation processes here at IU and industry-wide."