Bilal Bomani

Plant fuels that could power a jet

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What I'm going to do is, I'm going to explain to you an extreme green concept that was developed at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. But before I do that, we have to go over the definition of what green is, 'cause a lot of us have a different definition of it. Green. The product is created through environmentally and socially conscious means. There's plenty of things that are being called green now. What does it actually mean? We use three metrics to determine green. The first metric is: Is it sustainable? Which means, are you preserving what you are doing for future use or for future generations? Is it alternative? Is it different than what is being used today, or does it have a lower carbon footprint than what's used conventionally? And three: Is it renewable? Does it come from Earth's natural replenishing resources, such as sun, wind and water?


Now, my task at NASA is to develop the next generation of aviation fuels. Extreme green. Why aviation? The field of aviation uses more fuel than just about every other combined. We need to find an alternative. Also it's a national aeronautics directive. One of the national aeronautics goals is to develop the next generation of fuels, biofuels, using domestic and safe, friendly resources. Now, combating that challenge we have to also meet the big three metric — Actually, extreme green for us is all three together; that's why you see the plus there. I was told to say that. So it has to be the big three at GRC. That's another metric. Ninety-seven percent of the world's water is saltwater. How about we use that? Combine that with number three. Do not use arable land. Because crops are already growing on that land that's very scarce around the world. Number two: Don't compete with food crops. That's already a well established entity, they don't need another entry. And lastly the most precious resource we have on this Earth is fresh water. Don't use fresh water. If 97.5 percent of the world's water is saltwater, 2.5 percent is fresh water. Less than a half percent of that is accessible for human use. But 60 percent of the population lives within that one percent.


So, combating my problem was, now I have to be extreme green and meet the big three. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the GreenLab Research Facility. This is a facility dedicated to the next generation of aviation fuels using halophytes. A halophyte is a salt-tolerating plant. Most plants don't like salt, but halophytes tolerate salt. We also are using weeds and we are also using algae. The good thing about our lab is, we've had 3,600 visitors in the last two years. Why do you think that's so? Because we are on to something special.


So, in the lower you see the GreenLab obviously, and on the right hand side you'll see algae. If you are into the business of the next generation of aviation fuels, algae is a viable option, there's a lot of funding right now, and we have an algae to fuels program. There's two types of algae growing. One is a closed photobioreactor that you see here, and what you see on the other side is our species — we are currently using a species called Scenedesmus dimorphus. Our job at NASA is to take the experimental and computational and make a better mixing for the closed photobioreactors. Now the problems with closed photobioreactors are: They are quite expensive, they are automated, and it's very difficult to get them in large scale. So on large scale what do they use? We use open pond systems. Now, around the world they are growing algae, with this racetrack design that you see here. Looks like an oval with a paddle wheel and mixes really well, but when it gets around the last turn, which I call turn four — it's stagnant. We actually have a solution for that. In the GreenLab in our open pond system we use something that happens in nature: waves. We actually use wave technology on our open pond systems. We have 95 percent mixing and our lipid content is higher than a closed photobioreactor system, which we think is significant.


There is a drawback to algae, however: It's very expensive. Is there a way to produce algae inexpensively? And the answer is: yes. We do the same thing we do with halophytes, and that is: climatic adaptation. In our GreenLab we have six primary ecosystems that range from freshwater all the way to saltwater. What we do: We take a potential species, we start at freshwater, we add a little bit more salt, when the second tank here will be the same ecosystem as Brazil — right next to the sugar cane fields you can have our plants — the next tank represents Africa, the next tank represents Arizona, the next tank represents Florida, and the next tank represents California or the open ocean. What we are trying to do is to come up with a single species that can survive anywhere in the world, where there's barren desert. We are being very successful so far.


Now, here's one of the problems. If you are a farmer, you need five things to be successful: You need seeds, you need soil, you need water and you need sun, and the last thing that you need is fertilizer. Most people use chemical fertilizers. But guess what? We do not use chemical fertilizer. Wait a second! I just saw lots of greenery in your GreenLab. You have to use fertilizer. Believe it or not, in our analysis of our saltwater ecosystems 80 percent of what we need are in these tanks themselves. The 20 percent that's missing is nitrogen and phosphorous. We have a natural solution: fish. No we don't cut up the fish and put them in there. Fish waste is what we use. As a matter of fact we use freshwater mollies, that we've used our climatic adaptation technique from freshwater all the way to seawater. Freshwater mollies: cheap, they love to make babies, and they love to go to the bathroom. And the more they go to the bathroom, the more fertilizer we get, the better off we are, believe it or not. It should be noted that we use sand as our soil, regular beach sand. Fossilized coral.


So a lot of people ask me, "How did you get started?" Well, we got started in what we call the indoor biofuels lab. It's a seedling lab. We have 26 different species of halophytes, and five are winners. What we do here is — actually it should be called a death lab, 'cause we try to kill the seedlings, make them rough — and then we come to the GreenLab. What you see in the lower corner is a wastewater treatment plant experiment that we are growing, a macro-algae that I'll talk about in a minute. And lastly, it's me actually working in the lab to prove to you I do work, I don't just talk about what I do. Here's the plant species. Salicornia virginica. It's a wonderful plant. I love that plant. Everywhere we go we see it. It's all over the place, from Maine all the way to California. We love that plant. Second is Salicornia bigelovii. Very difficult to get around the world. It is the highest lipid content that we have, but it has a shortcoming: It's short. Now you take europaea, which is the largest or the tallest plant that we have. And what we are trying to do with natural selection or adaptive biology — combine all three to make a high-growth, high-lipid plant. Next, when a hurricane decimated the Delaware Bay — soybean fields gone — we came up with an idea: Can you have a plant that has a land reclamation positive in Delaware? And the answer is yes. It's called seashore mallow. Kosteletzkya virginica — say that five times fast if you can. This is a 100 percent usable plant. The seeds: biofuels. The rest: cattle feed. It's there for 10 years; it's working very well. Now we get to Chaetomorpha. This is a macro-algae that loves excess nutrients. If you are in the aquarium industry you know we use it to clean up dirty tanks. This species is so significant to us. The properties are very close to plastic. We are trying right now to convert this macro-algae into a bioplastic. If we are successful, we will revolutionize the plastics industry.


So, we have a seed to fuel program. We have to do something with this biomass that we have. And so we do G.C. extraction, lipid optimization, so on and so forth, because our goal really is to come up with the next generation of aviation fuels, aviation specifics, so on and so forth. So far we talked about water and fuel, but along the way we found out something interesting about Salicornia: It's a food product. So we talk about ideas worth spreading, right? How about this: In sub-Saharan Africa, next to the sea, saltwater, barren desert, how about we take that plant, plant it, half use for food, half use for fuel. We can make that happen, inexpensively. You can see there's a greenhouse in Germany that sells it as a health food product. This is harvested, and in the middle here is a shrimp dish, and it's being pickled. So I have to tell you a joke. Salicornia is known as sea beans, saltwater asparagus and pickle weed. So we are pickling pickle weed in the middle. Oh, I thought it was funny. (Laughter) And at the bottom is seaman's mustard. It does make sense, this is a logical snack. You have mustard, you are a seaman, you see the halophyte, you mix it together, it's a great snack with some crackers. And last, garlic with Salicornia, which is what I like. So, water, fuel and food.


None of this is possible without the GreenLab team. Just like the Miami Heat has the big three, we have the big three at NASA GRC. That's myself, professor Bob Hendricks, our fearless leader, and Dr. Arnon Chait. The backbone of the GreenLab is students. Over the last two years we've had 35 different students from around the world working at GreenLab. As a matter fact my division chief says a lot, "You have a green university." I say, "I'm okay with that, 'cause we are nurturing the next generation of extreme green thinkers, which is significant."


So, in first summary I presented to you what we think is a global solution for food, fuel and water. There's something missing to be complete. Clearly we use electricity. We have a solution for you — We're using clean energy sources here. So, we have two wind turbines connected to the GreenLab, we have four or five more hopefully coming soon. We are also using something that is quite interesting — there is a solar array field at NASA's Glenn Research Center, hasn't been used for 15 years. Along with some of my electrical engineering colleagues, we realized that they are still viable, so we are refurbishing them right now. In about 30 days or so they'll be connected to the GreenLab.


And the reason why you see red, red and yellow, is a lot of people think NASA employees don't work on Saturday — This is a picture taken on Saturday. There are no cars around, but you see my truck in yellow. I work on Saturday. (Laughter) This is a proof to you that I'm working. 'Cause we do what it takes to get the job done, most people know that. Here's a concept with this: We are using the GreenLab for a micro-grid test bed for the smart grid concept in Ohio. We have the ability to do that, and I think it's going to work. So, GreenLab Research Facility. A self-sustainable renewable energy ecosystem was presented today. We really, really hope this concept catches on worldwide. We think we have a solution for food, water, fuel and now energy. Complete. It's extreme green, it's sustainable, alternative and renewable and it meets the big three at GRC: Don't use arable land, don't compete with food crops, and most of all, don't use fresh water.


So I get a lot of questions about, "What are you doing in that lab?" And I usually say, "None of your business, that's what I'm doing in the lab." (Laughter) And believe it or not, my number one goal for working on this project is I want to help save the world.

Algae plus salt water equals ... fuel? At TEDxNASA@SiliconValley, Bilal Bomani reveals a self-sustaining ecosystem that produces biofuels — without wasting arable land or fresh water.

About the speaker
Bilal Bomani · NASA scientist

Bilal Bomani runs NASA’s Greenlab research facility, where he is developing the next generation of biofuels.

Bilal Bomani runs NASA’s Greenlab research facility, where he is developing the next generation of biofuels.