It's hard to imagine that the widespread issue of electronic waste could be seen as anything more than a problem, but what if it could be reused to make homegrown algae biofuels? That's what industrial design students at of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are envisioning with an 'algae bioreactor' called the Bio-Grow - a device which can cultivate high outputs of algae intended for biofuel production - all built from old computer parts.
"If someone had one of these in their homes, they would cultivate algae and extract it," says Megan Kenney, one of the members of the five-person undergraduate team. "Then they could take it into a gas company that was set up with an oil filtration facility and get credit off their gas."
The Bio-Grow's various components would include side panels from an Apple G4 CPU tower for the incubating tank, with PVC pipes for structural reinforcement and high density foam for insulation and stability. An old Apple iMac CRT provides the light needed for photosynthesis, while a modified Dell Latitude CPX laptop controls and adjusts the temperature and required light spectrums generated by the iMac CRT. The device also features a water pump to aerate the algae and a faucet that allows user to harvest the algae at any time.
"Algae's best growth factors are within the red and blue spectrums of light at a ratio of four to one," Kenney explains. "We also knew that it needed to be 62 to 82 degrees."
Bringing algae biofuels into large-scale production
Currently, though it requires less land to grow, algae biofuel production is still a less-than-perfect, costly and complex process confined mostly to the private sector.
The team hopes that the Bio-Grow will be part of a larger system that will allow your average algae-grower to take their homegrown algae to a biomass collection point. The algae would be then transported to a refinery, which would extract the lipids from the algae to create biodiesel, while its byproducts could be used for livestock feed, fertilizer and even pharmaceuticals.
According to the team's estimates, the algae from Bio-Grow devices installed in only 6.5 percent of American homes would be sufficient enough to replace petroleum with algae biodiesel. Growers could also make a quick buck: over the long-term, fast-growing algae can fetch a profit of a dollar per gallon because it can be harvested every three days. Though it's questionable how energy-efficient old computer components can be, conceptual prototypes like the Bio-Grow could help to bring biofuels mainstream.