The Fuel Farmer: Sulphur Springs native working on a process to develop diesel from algae
From Staff Reports
July 9, 2008 - Maybe you bought your first computer from him or came to your house to fix an ailing hard drive. Or you might remember Keith Klein from those many Monday nights on Channel 18, searching the Internet in all its tantalizing new wonder with Bill Bradford.
But Keith Klein has moved farther up the technological food chain.
Much, much farther up.
The Sulphur Springs native long known as the namesake of Klein and Son Computers now calls Alpine home, a spot in the vast Permian Basin, long known as one of the world's meccas of oil production.
There, as an assistant professor of industrial technology at Sul Ross State University, Klein is finding an answer to the prospect of paying $5 a gallon for fueld -- he's harnessing the power of the sun to grow his own.
Farfetched as it sounds, Klein is in the midst of a three-phase project to grow algae to produce diesel and food for livestock via a solar collection system.
"To me, this has real capabilities," Klein said. "I think it's a wonderful idea and I hope I can finish it in my lifetime."
Klein began his research at Texas A&M-Commerce with a 2003 grant and has continued since coming to Sul Ross,where his research is funded by two enhancement grants from the university and is based on performance specifications from the Department of Energy.
Klein's model is a tracking collection system that captures and concentrates sunlight into a shaft of light suitable for processing and/or transporting into remote growing environments. Klein explained that about 50 percent of sunlight's energy is in the visible spectrum, and the other 50 percent is mostly infrared, or heat. In the visible spectrum, blue and red light is used by plants for photosynthesis.
"For the growing environment, we desire to maximize the photosynthesis spectrum, but minimize the infrared and green, which only add heat to the environment," he said.
The processing unit must separate each spectrum and direct each into either the growing environment or the production of electricity or heat. The unit could also use technology to shift the "less desirable" spectrum back into the photosynthesis range to be then directed back into the growing environment.
Klein said Valcent Labs in El Paso has reported growing bio-diesel in a "closed-loop" algae-production system and is showing a yield of 34,000 gallons of bio-diesel and a like amount of food stock per year per one acre of area.
"The production rate makes the selection of algae very attractive, and the growth process requires little water," said Klein.
He added that the growth of algae requires a controlled solution of nutrients along with carbon dioxide and light. Major nutrients can be recaptured from liquid sewage, and the process dovetails with efforts to minimize the release of treated effluent into rivers, he said.
"Carbon dioxide can be recovered from the exhaust of boilers or generators burning conventional fuels or bio-gas, which is a product of the anaerobic fermentation or digestion of sewage, livestock waste, or food waste," he said.
Klein will be presenting some of his finding to researchers from across the nation at an upcoming renewable energy workshop at the University of Colorado.
The possibilities don't stop at food and fuel. There's a joke at their lab that a control knob on the processing unit has three settings -- one for diesel, one for gasoline and one for tequila.
"That sounds ridiculous, but I don't see anything too farfetched about it," he said. "Once you get a stock that you can turn into something, they're turning everything into something."
He could also reap the benefits of his work if it ever comes to that.
I'm just being told I need to start trying to protect this. The school told me the grant I'm working under, they'd have no rights to anything under this grant. What that means is I've got to spend all the money to do all the protecting if anything every comes from this."