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Clean Water And Clean Power Through Algae

It’s an entire cycle where you’re dealing with not only a water pollution problem.

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biodiesel from microalgae
A biochemist shows different types of microalgae for the study and manufacture of a biofuel in high displacement diesel engines for reducing emissions of gases and particulate matter in Santiago, Chile. VOA

“Nature sometimes isn’t pretty,” said University of Maryland environmental scientist Peter May, grabbing a clump of slimy green-brown gunk.

That gunk lines the bottom of what’s called an algal turf scrubber at the Port of Baltimore. The meter-wide, shallow channel runs the length of a football field alongside one of the port’s giant parking lots.

“Actually, it’s always pretty,” May corrected himself. Even the gunk. Because that gunk is removing pollution from the Chesapeake Bay. Plus, May’s colleagues are turning it into clean, renewable electricity.

The Chesapeake needs the help.

Algal feast

Like many waterways around the world, the bay is polluted with excess nutrients from farm fertilizer runoff, city wastewater and other sources. Algae feast on those nutrients, triggering massive growth that chokes out other aquatic life. Last summer, algal growth left an average of 4.6 cubic kilometers of the bay without oxygen.

A third of the pollution reaching the bay literally falls out of the sky.

Fossil fuels burned in power plants, cars and elsewhere create nitrogen oxide air pollution, which ultimately ends up in the bay, either attached to airborne particles or dissolved in rainwater.

Forests would soak up that pollution. But like many urban areas, the Port of Baltimore has a pavement problem. There’s not a tree to be found at the entire 230-hectare Dundalk Marine Terminal, where the algae scrubber is located.

So regulators require the port to remove as much pollution from the bay as its parking lots allow in. That’s where the algal turf scrubber comes in.

Algae
Algae is seen near the City of Toledo water intake crib, Aug. 3, 2014, in Lake Erie, about 2.5 miles off the shore of Curtice, Ohio. VOA

Putting algae to work

The scrubber is like “a controlled algal bloom on land,” May said, “which puts the algae to work pulling nutrients out of the water.”

The city of Durham, N.C., is planning to build another scrubber to clean up a local reservoir. A pilot study found it would cost about half as much as typical pollution control measures, such as constructed wetlands, and much less than retrofitting existing systems. Others are up and running in Florida.

The algal turf scrubber creates one big challenge, May said.

“What do we do with that algae? You have to have an end use or else you’re going to pile that algae up very quickly,” he said.

It’s high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s been turned into animal feed. It can be fermented into biofuels. Some of May’s colleagues have used it to launch a fertilizer business.

But here at the Port of Baltimore, they’re turning it into electricity.

Baltimore, Algae
Containers are unloaded from a ship at the Port of Baltimore, Oct. 24, 2016. The port uses an algae scrubber to remove pollution from the Chesapeake Bay. VOA

Digesting for power

May works with University of Maryland colleague Stephanie Lansing, an expert in a process called anaerobic digestion. It’s not much different from our own digestion.

“You have bacteria in your gut that break down food. We’re doing that same process in an anaerobic digester,” Lansing said. “We’re breaking down the material, and we’re producing energy in the process.”

In this case, the microbes digesting the algae produce methane biogas. The biogas runs a fuel cell.

“The fuel cell is actually a very efficient way to use the energy,” she said. This small, pilot system produces a modest amount of electricity.

Also Read: India’s Floating Solar Panel a Gateway To Clean Energy For Asia

“You can use it to charge batteries. You can use it for lights. You can use it for fans,” she added.

The Port of Baltimore plans to build a larger system that will cover about a third of a hectare, which could produce a few hundred kilowatts — still modest, but not bad, when you start with just polluted water and algae.

“It’s an entire cycle where you’re dealing with not only a water pollution problem, but an air pollution issue,” Lansing said. (VOA)

Next Story

Somalia Still Working on Petroleum Law, Aims Oil Exploration

“No company is going to start drilling without agreement with regions,” says Mohamed. “So why rush? It’s not good for the reputation of the country.”

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Petrol
Engineers and visitors view an exploratory well near Dharoor town, from the port of Bosasso on the Gulf of Aden in Puntland, Somalia, Jan. 17, 2012. VOA

The Somali government says it will award exploration licenses to foreign oil companies later this year, despite calls from the opposition to wait until laws and regulations governing the oil sector are in place.

Seismic surveys conducted by two British companies, Soma Oil & Gas and Spectrum Geo, suggest that Somalia has promising oil reserves along the Indian Ocean coast, between the cities of Garad and Kismayo. Total offshore deposits could be as high as 100 billion barrels.

 

“We have presented our wealth and resources to the companies,” Petroleum Minister Abdirashid Mohamed Ahmed told the VOA Somali program Investigative Dossier. “We held a roadshow in London [last week], and we will hold two more in two major cities so that we turn the eyes of the world to contest Somalia.”

But several lawmakers have expressed concern the government is moving too quickly. Last week, the head of the National Resource committee in the Upper House of Parliament accused President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s government of a “lack of due diligence” and violating the constitution.

Barnaby Pace, an investigator for the NGO Global Witness, which exposes corruption and environmental abuses, says Somalia, after decades of internal conflict, does not have the legal and regulatory framework to handle oil deals and the problems they can cause, such as environmental abuses, corruption, and political fights over revenue.

“There is not a clear consensus about how the oil sector could be managed in Somalia,” he said. “And once Somalia makes deals like the one it’s proposing, it may be locked in for many years and find it difficult to renegotiate or change them to best protect itself.”

Former oil officials speak out

Somalia’s parliament passed a Petroleum Law to govern oil sector in 2008 when the country operated under a transitional charter. But constitutional experts say that law was nullified after a constitution was ratified in 2012.

A proposed new law is now before parliament for debate. The bill says negotiations for oil-related contracts will be the responsibility of the Somali Petroleum Agency, which would not be formed until the law is passed.

Ahmed said government’s timetable for awarding licenses is just “tentative,” though he believes the government can keep to its schedule.

The government says it will accept bids for exploration licenses on November 7, and the winners will be informed immediately. It says production-sharing agreements will be signed on December 9, with the agreements going into effect on January 1, 2020.
The government says it will accept bids for exploration licenses on November 7, and the winners will be informed immediately. It says production-sharing agreements will be signed on December 9, with the agreements going into effect on January 1, 2020. VOA

 

But Somali lawmakers and opposition leaders are worried the government is in a needless rush.

Jamal Kassim Mursal was permanent secretary of the Somali Petroleum Ministry until last month when he resigned.

He says when the government came to power in 2017, the ministry was informed that bids for oil exploration licenses would not be considered until the Petroleum Law was passed and “we are ready with the knowledge and skills.”

Since then, he told VOA, “Nothing has changed — petroleum law is not passed, tax law is not ready, capacity has not changed, institutions have not been built.”

Abdirizak Omar Mohamed is the former petroleum minister who signed the 2013 seismic study agreement with Soma Oil & Gas.

Mohamed said the country needs political consensus and stability before oil drilling. He notes that a resource-sharing agreement between the federal government and Somali federal states has yet to be endorsed by the parliament.

“No company is going to start drilling without agreement with regions,” says Mohamed. “So why rush? It’s not good for the reputation of the country.”

Soma and Spectrum’s advantage

Mursal also objects to an agreement that gives first choice of oil exploration blocks to Soma Oil & Gas, one of the companies that conducted the seismic studies.

According to the agreement, Soma Oil & Gas will choose 12 blocks or 60,000 square kilometers to conduct oil exploration. Among these are two blocks believed to contain large oil reserves near the town of Barawe.

He says the government needs to renegotiate and offer just two blocks instead.

“This is the one that is causing the alarm,” he said. He predicts that if Soma Oil & Gas gets to choose 12 blocks, the company will “flip” some of the blocks to the highest bidder.

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Mohamed said the country needs political consensus and stability before oil drilling. He notes that a resource-sharing agreement between the federal government and Somali federal states has yet to be endorsed by the parliament. Pixabay

In 2015, Soma Oil & Gas was caught up in controversy after allegations of quid pro quo payments to the Somali Ministry of Petroleum. The payments were termed as “capacity building.” The following year, Britain’s Serious Fraud Office closed the case because it could not prove that corruption took place.

Somalia’s current prime minister, Hassan Ali Khaire, was working for Soma Oil & Gas at time. Somali officials say that since taking office, Khaire has “relinquished” his stake in the company, said to be more than 2 million shares.

The other company that conducted seismic surveys, Spectrum, also made payments to the Somali Ministry of Finance, according to Mursal.

Mursal told Investigative Dossier that between 2015 and 2017, Spectrum paid $450,000 every six months to the ministry.

A senior official who previously was involved in the Ministry of Petroleum told VOA that Spectrum paid $1.35 million in all. He said the payment was “consistent,” though, with the advice of the Financial Governance Committee, a body consisting on Somali and donors which gives financial advice to Somalia.

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Spectrum has not yet responded to Investigative Dossier requests for an interview.

Current Petroleum Minister Ahmed said the government will do what is best for Somalia, but needs to have a law governing the oil sector in place.

“The parliament has the petroleum law,” he said. “Without it being passed, we can’t touch anything.” (VOA)