Greenhouse Gases Have New Meaning With Algae-based Oil Production

Now and again, you see an algae-ridden pond with an oily scum. You may be looking at your next tank of gas, according to Brian Downing, president and chief executive officer, DLT&V Systems Engineering, based in Phoenix.

The company is an electrical engineering and integration firm with extensive experience providing design, construction services and programming for industrial facility electrical and control systems.

DLT&V recently engineered and installed Wonderware Historian and a highly flexible data handling system for a biofuels research-and-development greenhouse run by Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI). The company is privately held, and applies genomic-driven commercial solutions to address a variety of global challenges, including energy and the environment.

The R&D facility is part of a multi-year project with ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company (EMRE) to develop next-generation biofuels using photosynthetic algae. In the greenhouse, tanks of seawater are planted with oil-producing algae, which consume plant nutrients and carbon dioxide to sustain growth, excreting lipids in the process. These lipids serve as feedstocks for biodiesel fuel, gasoline and various other hydrocarbon fractions-meaning that, some day, you may be driving around on the exudates of pond scum.

Still in the experimental stage, algaculture has shown promise. It can produce more oil per area of culture than soy, and the latter is already producing 450 million gallons of biodiesel per year. The little green plants consume no more carbon dioxide than the amount generated when the oil is burned, so, in that respect, they have a zero carbon footprint.

Development requires the gathering of data on growing conditions, sunlight, tank agitation and dozens of other parameters. "That's where Wonderware comes in," Downing said in a theater presentation Tuesday evening. "Because of limited budgeting, SGI needed to get maximum value from its experimental infrastructures. But the system had to be scalable to meet changing capacities at the greenhouse, and it had to have flexible communications, because sensors and inputs move from tank to tank during the course of experimentation."

"The power of Historian in Wonderware gives SGI the data collection and data density capabilities they need to perform critical analysis on product yields and process performance," Downing said. "Wonderware licensing can easily be expanded to accommodate additional processes; this give SGI the flexibility they need."

The Wonderware system also enables staff at partner ExxonMobil's offices to have remote access to the data and be able to monitor the performance. In addition, DLT&V uses a second remote access to give SGI continued support.

Communications are handled wirelessly, bypassing the need to string and re-string wires when data sensors are moved to new tanks. "Budgeting prevented truly industrial wireless," Downing said, "so we opted for consumer transmitters sourced at a local computer gaming store."

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