Algae Farms to Combat Highway Pollution

Rooftop gardens, green roofs, and other urban green spaces have been extremely beneficial for reducing stormwater runoff, for carbon sequestration, for creating a source of local food, and more. Recently, a new type of elevated garden created by Cloud Collective has hit the streets of Geneva, Switzerland: an algae farm. The farm is located on a highway overpass, which provides the ideal conditions for algae growth: sunlight, and CO2 from car emissions. The algae are grown in a bioreactor system on the wall of the overpass, made up of a closed, transparent tube system filled with algae, filters, pumps, and solar panels (

The algae is harvested as the tubes drain and filter the green gooey algae mix within. What are the Swiss going to do with all that algae? Algae can be used in food supplements, to make products like cosmetics and fertilizers, be used to make biofuel, or turned into green electricity as biomass ( They act like all other plants, generating energy from photosynthesis using sunlight and CO2, and producing oxygen. In fact, algae are even more productive than plants. They are “more efficient at utilizing sunlight than terrestrial plants, consume harmful pollutants, and have minimal resource requirements and do not compete with food or agriculture for precious resources” (Sudhakar and Premalatha 2011). Additionally they have much higher growth rates. The current algae farm is only up temporarily as an experiment in a local festival, but similar experiments are being built elsewhere on buildings and bridges, and the farm designers believe the gardens could be extremely beneficial and practical for cities everywhere.

My thoughts after reading about this experiment and Switzerland left me with the following thoughts. With a big more trial and error, I think algae farms such as this could be an extremely efficient way to cut down our CO2 emissions. The apparatus doesn’t seem to take up too much space, or be too costly to operate (although I couldn’t find any numbers on pricing, so this is just my best guess based on the components of the contraption). Also, they look cool and remind me of my childhood dream of getting slimed on Slime Time Live.

I was interested to learn more about algae production to combat CO2, so I did some more research and learned that this was not the only experiment of it’s kind. For example, In 2009, Dow Chemical and Algenol Biofuels built a plant that used algae to convert CO2 into biodiesel or an ingredient in plastics (Wald, 2009). The goals for the products would be to reduce or replace the use of natural gas, reduce CO2, and provide oxygen. I am interested to see how algal cultivation will continue to create opportunities to reduce carbon dioxide, as well as create advances in medical science and other exciting and evolving fields.

Images of Geneva algae tubes

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Wald, L. Matthews. 2009. Algae Farm Aims to Turn Carbon Dioxide into Fuel. The New York Times.

Sudhakar, K. Suresh, Premalatha, M. 2011. An Overview of CO2 Mitigation Using Algae Cultivation Technology. International Journal of Chemical Research.

“Green” Cement and what it could mean for worldwide carbon emissions

The production of concrete, a vital building material for the human race, is actually very detrimental to the global climate. A group of scientists have found a way to lessen the impact of producing this material.

Concrete is an extremely common and widely used building material in both developed and developing countries. This is because concrete is the most used construction material in the world, with its present usage being estimated at three times that of steel. Every other building you see in the U.S., bridges, some roads and numerous other structures are made of this incredible material.

The industrial production of concrete involves the mixture of sand, water, gravel and cement. The creation of cement involves two major components; calcium (derived from limestone most often) and silica (clay). The materials are cooked at 1500 degrees Celsius, creating a hard mass called “clinker”. The clinker is ground up into a powder to mix with the other components of concrete. The massive amounts of greenhouse gases released by the process come from the heating process, largely from the carbon released from the limestone as the calcium is extracted through the cooking process. Cement creation, along with fossil fuels, make up about 63% of industrial carbon emissions along with concrete consisting of a tenth of the worldwide industrial total.

However in the journal Nature Communications, MIT senior research scientist Roland Pellenq; professors Krystyn Van Vliet, Franz-Josef Ulm, Sidney Yip, and Markus Buehler; and eight co-authors at MIT and at CNRS in Marseille, France published findings that suggest a way to reduce carbon emissions in cement production. The study is part of a five-year research project by a collaborative between MIT and the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) that Pellenq directed. The structure of cement is based on the ratio of calcium to silica to make the most molecularly-stable concrete possible. The standard ratio is 1.7. The researchers at MIT discovered that a lower ratio of 1.5 can provide a molecular structure that has twice the resistance as conventional cement. The lower ratio reduces the amount of calcium needed, thus decreasing the amount of carbon released from limestone during the cooking process. Pellenq states, since emissions related to concrete production are estimated to represent 5 to 10 percent of industrial greenhouse-gas emissions, he says, “any reduction in calcium content in the cement mix will have an impact on the CO2.” The resulting substance, in addition to being stronger, has a more glassy composition that is more resistant to fractures.

Pellenq states that this new form of cement could be beneficial to the oil and gas industries. Because the new substance has improved resistance to mechanical stress, it could be of used as a more effective seal on well casings to prevent leaks and blowouts. At present, the improved cement structure only exists at the molecular level and not for physical use. However, the potential for this new material are promising and may present the future of building all over the world.

Richard Heed, Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010. (2013)

David L. Chandler, How to make stronger, “greener” cement: Analysis of material’s molecular structure leads to a new formula that could cut greenhouse-gas emissions. MIT News Office (2014)

California: home of the world’s largest solar farm

“We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.” Native American Proverb.

Our hope for the existence of future generations lies in the hope of increased use of renewable energy. Harnessing the Sun’s energy is not a new concept. As a matter of fact, all energy comes from the sun. Some of this energy has been buried for millions of years and is now being burned as fossil fuels, contributing to anthropogenic global climate change. Some of this energy is fresh, new, and revolutionizing the way we do things around here. No more business as usual, no more “well we’ve always done it this way”. Well, at least I can dream. It’s not that black and white. But any step toward letting renewables in and pushing fossil fuels out sounds pretty good to me.

San Luis Obispo County, California, has made history in 2015 as the world’s largest solar farm in service, containing approximately 9 million solar panels spanning 9.5 miles. The project, named Topaz, took two years to complete and cost an estimated $2.5 billion. The 550-megawatt plant utilizes solar photovoltaic panels rather than mirrors, which minimize the “scorching” impact to wildlife, especially birds (Iflscience, 2014). The owner of this project, MidAmerican Solar states that the location and operation was chosen with low-impact development practices in mind and took into account current land use, describing the land as “non-prime” agricultural land with limited productivity. When in operation, these photovoltaic cells generate no emissions, no noise pollution, no waste, and require no water use. The project area contains minimal impervious surface allowing for natural drainage, while supporting a productive grassland habitat for native plants and animals. Did I mention the added bonus of providing 160,000 California homes with power?!? Pacific Gas and Electric Company will buy the electricity generated from Topaz under a 25-year purchase agreement. The completion of this epic project will help California meet its mandate to generate 33% of its power from renewables by 2020 (MidAmerican Renewables, 2014).

The developer of this project, First Solar, has projected the displacement of CO2 annually to measure 377,000 tons – the equivalent of taking 73,000 cars off the road. In addition, economic benefits are estimated at $417 million in positive impacts, which includes property and sales tax revenues for the County, wages from employment, induced spending, and supply chain revenues (First Solar, 2014).

While Topaz is the current world record setter, it is also a trend setter for similar-in-size solar panel farms being built in California, Nevada, and Arizona that have yet to go online. I’m hoping it won’t be the record holder for long. The more solar panels, the better for a sustainable future. Not only are these photovoltaic cells harnessing completely renewable energy, making a real impact, but they stand as powerful symbols for the future of The United States as well as the rest of the world to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and welcome renewable energy with open arms.


(Iflscience, 2014)

(MidAmerican Renewables, 2014)

(First Solar, 2014)

Street lights lit by living plants

So we all know the harmful implications of burning fossil fuel to environmental and human health. Well here’s another alternative to producing energy without burning anything. Marjolein Helder, developed the technology to capture electricity from living plants during her master’s at Wageningen University. She is now the CEO of a company called Plant-e that sells Wi-Fi hot spots, mobile chargers, and rooftop electricity modules, all fueled by the byproducts of living plants. The company has even gone as far as lighting a public park in Hembrug, Netherlands with 300 LED lights and setting up the first two green roof installments.

Here is how it works, as we know plants convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce sugars by the process of photosynthesis. But, not all the sugars are used by the plant, in fact only about half are used, the waste is then excreted through the roots into the soil. Bacteria in the soil then break down these sugars and produce protons and electrons. Plant-e then places a carbon conductor into the soil and when the bacteria donate electrons, the electrons will then flow from into the electrode which is then transferred to a power harvester.

Although plant-e technology is a feat towards clean energy, it is in the beginning stages. It is not able to compete with other renewable energies such as solar and wind power. Right now one-square-meter garden should be able to produce 28 kilowatt-hours per year. It would take a 4,000 square meter yard to provide an average American home with the 10,843 kilowatts-hours per year it consumes. Even though this might not be realistic option for American households, it would only take about a third of this area to provide for an average home in the Netherlands, which uses an estimated 3,500 kilowatt hours per year. This fact was an eye-opener for me, so the second moral of the story is that it is still important to make the little changes. Turn off the lights when your not in the room, turn down the heat when your not home, unplug those chargers when they aren’t charging, close the fridge door all the way, unplug that mini fridge that is only holding a yogurt.

Sorry for my digression. Plant-e is looking to the future to provide energy to rural developing countries that don’t have access to electricity now. They envision producing energy from wetland, peat bogs, mangroves, rice paddies and river deltas. I, for one, look forward to charging my phone by the plants on my window sill.


Kayla Schultz, Dutch Company Powers Streetlights With Living Plants; Will Your Cell Phone Be Next?


Plant-e; living plants generate electricity,

Lastly, here is just a really cool toy I found while surfing the web the other day. Another way to harness naturally occurring energy.

WAHHHH? Heating Buildings with Body Heat?

It is apparent to most people that the relying on fossil fuels for energy production is no longer feasible. Most climate scientist agree that the burning of these fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is leading to a general warming pattern of the earth. This warming is causing climate change including an increase in storms, rising sea levels, rising average temperatures all around the world, and other seriously damaging effects.

Scientists and technologists all around the world are searching for new, dependable sources of energy production that don’t have the detrimental side effects of natural gas, coal and oil. Engineers in Stockholm have determined a method to trap body heat in highly occupied public spaces and turn it into energy that can be used to heat buildings. This invention is one of the most amazing advancements in new energy that I have heard of in a while. How has no one thought of or harnessed this source of heat/energy before this?

In Stockholm Central Station, a system has been put into place to do exactly this. It is shocking that more people haven’t harnessed this idea. Each person produced 100 watts of body heat. With 250 thousand people passing through the station each day, it is no surprise that massive amounts of body heat are produced and unutilized. Without a system like Stockholm’s, the body heat is released into the environment and is theoretically wasted (BBC, 2011).

The system that allows this incredible idea to become a reality is a astonishingly simplistic one. The heat produced by people traveling through the station, the machines that they use, and the transactions that they complete are captured through the buildings ventilation system. The ventilation system then converts the extra heat into hot water. That hot water is then transferred (using electricity) to the heating system within an office building consisting of apartments, dining and office space next door (The New York Times, 2012).

This capture and conversion of usually wasted energy provides the office building with 25% of its heating requirements. This means that they save 25% of their conventional energy costs and also that 25% of their heating source is completely renewable and emission free. Thinking on a larger scale, if the body heat from our 7 billion and growing population was all captured and utilized for heat and energy production within large cities, where it is more practical, our entire energy production system could be scrapped. Only time will tell if this energy source will take off and if people will start seeing the sensibility of a system mirroring Stockholm’s Central Station (The 9 Billion, 2011).

I am truly amazed and inspired by the creativity and innovation of the scientists in Stockholm for this invention. If more people around the world would embrace technologies like these, the use of dirty energy sources would decrease enormously. Think of the possibilities in larger, more densely populated cities like New York or Los Angeles. The options are endless and the technologies are advancing.


(BBC, 2011)

(The New York Times, 2012)

(The 9 Billion, 2011)

Copenhagen Taking the Lead in Transportation

Advancements of technology and changes in governmental regulations in regard to cleaner, less damaging energy are some of the most promising options to reduce the enormous energy usage produced by the current human lifestyle, which leads to the release of greenhouse gases. Scientists all around the world are coming up with new, creative ways to produce energy that isn’t invasive and damaging to the earth and it’s natural processes. Government leaders are also taking steps to reduce their countries average energy consumption.  A third of the earth’s energy usage is accounted for by transportation. Ninety-five percent of the average passenger cars driven around the world release carbon dioxide from fossil fuels into the earth’s atmosphere. This carbon dioxide is released but isn’t absorbed by the earth’s natural processes and therefore is trapped back in the earth’s atmosphere. Cars and buses also produce methane. The Environmental Protection Agency has stated that methane is 20 times more effective at trapping heat within the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. They also produce nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide accounts for 5 to 6 percent of greenhouse gases. With this being said. It is clearly important that new technologies be utilized and governmental regulations put in place that have less damaging effects on the earth, it’s processes and the future of mankind. Maybe the most energy efficient public transportation system is in Copenhagen, Denmark. It isn’t just their strategic use of an award winning Metro rail system and their electric driven CityBuses, but it is also largely due to a the sustainable transport policy established by the Danish government (Wonderful Copenhagen, 2014). The government released a plan consisting of objectives and a long-term green transport plan. The plan consists of actions that will reduce transport-associated carbon dioxide emissions, a green car tax, a push for the use of public transport and biking, an expanded rail network, regard for the environment while designing infrastructure like bridges and roads, and a reduction of noise and air pollutants. The reduction of noise and air pollution is relevant in a sustainable transportation plan because the leading source of both of these is cars (Danish Government, 2008). In order to reduce worldwide total energy usage, a fundamental change in transportation, echoing a system like Copenhagen’s would have positive effects on a third of the total sources. Copenhagen’s government is largely to blame for this enormous change. They accomplished this through the release of a long-term green transport plan. In order for the rest of the world’s major cities to attain a system like this, there would need to be actions from heads of statewide and federal governments. It truly warms my soul to learn about the scientific advancements to change the way human kind produces energy for our day-to-day processes. Transportation is something that I personally am not willing to give up and I wouldn’t expect others to. That is why it is necessary to find technologies that can allow people to continue commuting and traveling the world without the detrimental effects that our transportation systems have currently. Sources: (Wonderful Copenhagen, 2014) (Danish Government, 2008)