By: Tyler Kirk
In the coming months, Whatcom Community College’s Engineering Club will bring the Bellingham area one step closer to more efficient and sustainable living with their newest endeavor, an algae bioreactor.
The Engineering Club was recently granted nearly $5,000 from the Associated Students of Whatcom Community College (ASWCC) club fund to allow them to build the bioreactor.
The club’s president, Bretton Fedorczyk, who is studying mechanical engineering with a specialization in sustainable energy, suggested the idea at the end of last year as members were considering a follow-up to their Stratoballoon project.
He said the idea came to him after his girlfriend sent him an article on the Bio Intelligent Quotient (B.I.Q.) apartment building in Hamburg, Germany, which was designed to be completely self-sustainable using algae bioreactor technology. The B.I.Q. building, whose face is covered by a series of algae bioreactors, is able to produce its own electricity, heat and insulation in a continuous cycle without releasing any extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Fedorczyk said.
Fedorczyk said that with such “huge gaps of learning curves” in a community college setting, he wanted to suggest a project that was “large enough that [also] involved many different areas of engineering.”
“[It was] starting with an idea and putting it on paper,” said Fedorczyk, describing the early steps of the project. “Making it work theoretically.”
Jonathan Carlson, the club’s secretary, said the key to the project’s success is photosynthesis, the process by which plants use light energy to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and other forms of chemical energy.
The bioreactor will consist of a series of transparent glass tubes, containing the algae, attached to a metal frame. The algae inside will receive carbon dioxide, which will be added through an exterior system, Carlson said. Lights will then be fixed on the algae and with this constant source of energy, photosynthesis will begin. This process produces the necessary nutrients for algae growth, he said.
Carlson said this procedure results in a separation of matter with the lipids, the individual sources of energy within a cell, floating to the top. These lipids are what can be used to create biofuel. The remaining mixture of leftover cell matter, the cellulose, will remain on the bottom of the tubes in the bioreactor.
The biofuel that will be created with the bioreactor can potentially be harvested for use in the heating and hot water systems in a building, Fedorczyk said. The excess cellulose will be placed in a chamber to decompose, resulting in common gases such as methane, butane and propane, among others. These gases can be used to produce electricity.
Fedorczyk says he is focusing on the self-sustainable aspect of this project.
“You feed your own system,” Fedorczyk said. “That is what made me want to do this.”
The club is only waiting on the last piece of the bioreactor, the glass tubing, which is en route from Germany. Once the tubing arrives, the members will assemble the system and begin growing and harvesting the algae.
“We’re hoping to actually have algae growing mid-May,” Carlson said.
They intend to get around three weeks of growing in by the end of the quarter, which would produce “at least a couple gallons” of excess algae, Carlson said. If all goes according to plan, biofuel could be produced by summer.
Carlson said that with most club members taking 20 or more credits at Whatcom, their time has been limited, but even as they await the arrival of the glass tubing, the rest of the bioreactor is almost complete.
For next year, Carlson said they are considering the possibility of moving the bioreactor into a greenhouse located somewhere on campus. This would provide a physical outdoor location with the benefit of consistent light energy. He said this would increase the bioreactor’s production significantly, adding that the biofuel and electricity output of a more permanent location on campus could potentially save Whatcom power expenses in the future.
Fedorczyk said using bioreactors to power a building, as Germany has done, has the major advantage of using existing carbon dioxide in a continuous efficient cycle as opposed to burning fossil fuels for energy, which greatly increases carbon dioxide levels released into the atmosphere. He said this type of efficient energy production could power homes in the future.
“It mostly is a world-solving situation,” Fedorczyk said.
The Engineering Club meets bi-weekly in Kulshan 108. More information can be found at Student Life.