Move Aside Solar, We’re Installing An Algae Panel

the algae panel

[Cody] of Cody’sLab has been bit by what he describes as the algae growing bug. We at Hackaday didn’t know that was a disease floating around, but we’ll admit that we’re not surprised after the last few years. So not content to stick to the small-time algae farms, [Cody] decided to scale up and build a whole algae panel.

Now, why would you want to grow algae? There are edible varieties of algae, you can extract oils from it, and most importantly, it can be pumped around in liquid form. To top it off, all it needs is just sunlight, carbon dioxide, and a few minerals to grow. Unlike those other complicated land-based organisms that use photosynthesis, algae don’t need to build any structure to hold themselves up or collect sunlight; it floats.

The real goal of the algae is to build a system known as “Chicken Hole.” The basic idea is to have a self-sufficient system. The algae feed the insects, the insects feed the chickens, and so on up the chain until it reaches [Cody]. While glass would make an ideal material for the algae tubes, plastic soda bottles seem like a decent proxy for a prototype and are much cheaper. He connected around 100 half-liter bottles to form long tubes and a PVC distribution system. The algae needs to be pumped into an insulated container to prevent it from freezing at night. At first, a simple timer outlet controlled the pump to only run during the day, draining it via gravity at night. However, the algae can’t heat up enough when running on cloudy, cold winter days, and it cools off. A solar panel and a temperature sensor form the logic for the pump, with a minimum temperature and sunlight needed to run.

[Cody] mentions that he can expect around 10 grams of algae per day on a panel this size in the winter. He’s going to need quite a few more if he’s going to scale up properly. Perhaps in the future, we’ll see panels growing algae robots? Video after the break.

58 thoughts on “Move Aside Solar, We’re Installing An Algae Panel

  1. I thought you could also use algae to make diesel. Yeah, long process to make it, but still, you have to start some where. Also I did not realize Algae did not like the cold. I had a recirculating pond that grew both the bad type of Algae (black) and the good stuff (green), and it did not matter the Temp.

        1. I remember seeing something like this on ‘Tomorrows World’ (BBC TV) about 35 years ago. They grew the Algae in tubes like Cody does, then dried it and used the powdered algae as a fuel directly (so not quite like diesel) but usable as a bio-mass. But yeah I also think it was an engineered algae not a natural one.

          1. I think I remember that episode too – they had a thin spiral of clear tubing for the algae to grow in, maybe 5 or 6ft high, and a light source in the middle if my memory is correct.

        2. For anyone struggling with Scott’s idea. The oil from algae can be converted to bio diesel using lye/methanol via transesterification.

          Tl;Dr oil + methoxide = bio diesel + glycerin

    1. For those not in the know, algae oil can undergo transesterification the same as any other oil to make bio-diesel.

      Triglyceride + 3 Methanol Glycerol + Methyl Esters (biodiesel)

        1. You need to consider that farm vechiles use diesel for most of their farm equipment. So it’s all about balancing. If they can grow diesel, it’s going to cost a lot more. But we’re never going to be off of fossil fuels while they are the cheapest option.

        2. Yeah we do fool ourselves in believing our electrity is green but in truth it’s produced by either the gas or liquid ( oil) or solid (coal). There’s proof in last years’ rolling blackouts in Texas’ wind powered electrical grid not having any oil backup when the wind(Mills) stopped. 25% is where we are now at in all Alternative non- oil produced electricity..yet we “believe” we’re green powered!

          1. You’re not quite triggering my troll detector, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

            1. “our electricity.. [snip] ..Texas”
            Who is “us”? Norway is a net exporter of clean renewable energy (as well as a bunch of other less great fuels, but oh well). England, Denmark, and Germany produce significant parts of their energy from wind and exporting during good conditions.

            2. The problems in Texas were not caused by “frozen turbines”. Wind is a known intermittent source, makes up a comparatively tiny portion of the generation capacity in Texas, and operate just fine in climates where the 2021 cold snap would be just another winter day. Know what? Look up Rollie Williams’ hysterical YouTube vid, id: PmYvkCXXI4E

            (I assume posting links doesn’t work still, so: )

          2. Actually, the only reason the end mills had any reason to be in that fake story was so that the failed natural gass pipelines that froze and stopped the power generation needed to hide their failure so the oil companies who also own the news and the politicians, paid them to change the story and blame it on windmills. The windmills actually saved everybody buts. If they weren’t there there would have been zero power. Furthermore the types of windmills in Texas we’re not the cold weather type which was allowed by the local energy policy makers which was a major mistake, allowed to happen to save money. Norway does just fine in the cold because they have the proper ice systems.

          3. I don’t understand human beings that don’t think our race is smart enough to do better than oil. If inventors did not try, we would not have inventions like the airplane. Those Wright brothers were so stupid to think humans can fly. The only reason why people think we can’t go green is because they don’t know how, and they are too lazy to figure it out. To all the people that care, don’t give these guys anytime in replying to them. They are a waste of your time.

    2. Some years ago, I had worked out the chemistry for producing ammonia from an algal colony, contained an envelope of Mylar, fused in places to form a circuit. Perhaps I should build it now. Ammonia is much better as the algae produce it themselves and it can be used as a fuel, rather than having to formulate biodiesel from dried biomass.

  2. Algae really are cool little biochemical factories. However, if we want to do really fun stuff then we need to modify them to produce the target molecules. Obviously, step one in modifying them should be to control their rate of growth. If you’re merely consuming the algae then obviously you want to maximize their rate of growth. One way to do this would be to modify chlorophyll production to invent a more optimal chlorophyll molecule that captures a much wider range of the EM spectrum.

    1. But what happens when those modified algae find their way into natural bodies of water and are more resilient than the strains in that water?

      Like in the comment above (fat producing algae): this can’t be a good thing, right?

      1. Couldn’t this be archived ‘old school’ by natural selection?
        Expose your algae to very little light, to light with the 430nm and 662nm portion removed or at hot/cold conditions and let those who survive reproduce?

      2. I think a good solution would make it so weak that in nature it would just die by it self.
        Make it very sensitive to temperature for example or that any lack of light just kills it.
        Sure this means it needs more babystitting than the real algae, but you have microcontrollers to do this for you.

        I see this the same way as some nuclear reactor works (I don’t recall how it works, it’s more, if someone more knowledgeable wants to correct me, you are welcome!): You control the power by raising a dampening material. The more you raise it, the more reaction there is, the more power you get. If you lower it, you lower the power output. But if you lower it all the way, no reaction is possible. So if there is any failure, the whole thing is flooded and it stops.

      3. “Like in the comment above (fat producing algae): this can’t be a good thing, right?”

        Plants are heavily adapted to their environment. In fact, most plants have tons of energy *wasting* mechanisms. You want a plant to grow faster, you don’t turn up the light, you put it in a greenhouse.

        If you engineered an algae which captured a ton more energy, it’d have to do something with it. And it’d only be able to do that in your resource-rich environment. Let it out into the real world, and it’d just… starve. Imagine a seriously overweight person (adapted to a food-rich environment with little energy needed to get food) suddenly thrust into prehistoric times. They’d just die.

      4. >But what happens when those modified algae find their way into natural bodies of water and are more resilient than the strains in that water?

        That’s a common but overblown fear because that “more resilient” part is mostly just hand-waving.

        Usually such modifications are to make it use it’s limited resources to produce something that is useful to us but not useful to the algae. Thus such modified strains are less, not more resilient than the natural ones which use all their resources on their own survival.

      5. It’s not like we have already this problem with good old natural algae,
        Like for example in Mediterranean Sea where some parts are colonized by Red Sea algaes brought by the Suez canal (and/or aquarium enthusiasts)…

    2. If it was that easy to create a more optimal chlorophyll nature would have done so, it has had a very very long time to crack that problem – we might be able to make something better at one narrow part of its job in the plant but odds are that level of tinkering means it poisons itself in other ways, or at best just doesn’t actually achieve anything because the raw materials for photosynthesis can’t be transported or absorbed fast enough.

      1. “If it was that easy to create a more optimal chlorophyll nature would have done so,”

        Saying “optimal chlorophyll” is a bit pointless. Chlorophyll’s a molecule, it just is. Really you mean “improved photosynthesis.” And we already *know* we can improve photosynthesis. There are plenty of ways to do it, because plants *are not trying to use light efficiently*. They have waaaay more energy than they need, in general, because most plants are resource starved. Most plants are typically CO2 starved, which is why if you want plants to grow faster, you put them in a greenhouse, not under sun lamps.

        “because the raw materials for photosynthesis can’t be transported or absorbed fast enough.”

        Plants generally live in resource-starved (not energy starved) environments, because… that’s what the Earth is. If you create a resource-rich and energy starved environment, they would adapt differently. Of course you could do this naturally, but you can always do it artificially as well.

          1. “There were at least 4 types of chlorophyll”

            Yes, because chemistry is messy and every time you change a bond or tack on a few carbons it gets a new name. Chlorophyll is anything with a chlorin magnesium ligand – a trap for a doubly-ionized magnesium ion.

            “Can it be further optimized for the task we want?”

            Chlorophyll isn’t optimized for energy absorption, it’s optimized for energy *transfer*. Plants have bucket-tons of energy available – they build large structures of chlorophyll antennas which shuffle energy *extremely* efficiently via resonant energy transfer – like, 90+% efficient. You can’t make it much better. The rate limiting step for plants is resources, not energy.

        1. “Most plants are typically CO2 starved, which is why if you want plants to grow faster, you put them in a greenhouse, not under sun lamps.”

          Or put them in the flue-gas stacks of whatever fossil fuel burning device you may have handy. There they’ll get both abundant heat and CO2. Add lighting if your algae need it. That’s 2 bites from the fossil fuel cookie.

        2. All true, my point was that the original posters idea of just fixing this ‘optimal C’ isn’t a solution to anything, plants are already well optimized at functioning in anything like a viable environment you can produce in your algae farm and even if you could produce such an environment to push them further would mean pushing the natural boundaries on all fronts of plant cell function – as you rightly point out its not usually energy plants are staved of, so you need to fix the ability to transport and absorb the other resources to go any faster than nature already can if you give it the environment to do so.

          Its like slapping a massive turbo or supercharger in a car – maybe you can actually see some momentary gain from doing so, but if you don’t fix everything else to handle that change you will at best see a tiny blip of gain before the other limits take hold, and quite likely just wreck the engines performance and maybe kill the engine outright…

          1. Mostly I agree, but you also had this…

            “plants are already well optimized at functioning in anything like a viable environment you can produce in your algae farm”

            which is kinda nuts. Again, plants are optimized for resource-starved situations. This is why human agriculture and selective breeding has resulted in massive yield improvements, because we grow plants in resource-rich environments.

            There’s plenty of research into improving overall photosynthetic yield. It’s just that talking about improving chlorophyll is silly. Chlorophyll already has an energy reception-and-delivery efficiency of close to 30%.

          2. And if you give them more resources most plants just grow better – you didn’t need to breed the plant for that, the breeding is usually about making them produce more of the very specific bit of the plant we want, not grow in general – any plant given more resources grows better up to a rather high point – which is why we spray fertiliser, grow things in CO2 rich green house etc – give em more stuff to work with and they use it, but still the same damn plant.

          3. “the breeding is usually about making them produce more of the very specific bit of the plant we want, not grow in general”

            Um, no. Optimized breeding leads to *way* higher overall biomass yields than wild-type plants. Like, factors of 2 higher.

            Yes, of course, all plants grow faster when given more resources, but specialized breeds are on a totally different level.

            There’s a ton of research on this. Wild-type algae, specifically, are in fact very bad photosynthetically because… well, their environment’s pretty freaking terrible. Just search for algae biomass yield optimization, you’ll see tons of info.

    3. You can grow up the cells to whatever bulk you require then inoculate them with a viral vector to induce the production of whatever product they are metabolically capable of producing.

  3. Neat experiment! That being said I’m not sure there’s an optimum way to feed chickens involved there. Farming bugs in a way that doesn’t involve exotic aquatic devices seems like it’d work out better.

    Greenhouse? Pelletize them during warmer weather?

    1. I grow mealworms just because they’re so easy. Really just a few Tupperware containers, throw in some oatmeal and the larvae eat it up, keep a few out of each generation to turn into beetles and they make more pretty quick. I feed them fishfood flakes when they get to feeding size because they got a lot of vitamins. Just the leftover pieces of veggies after your dinner is enough for them to get the water they need every few days. Humidity in the enclosure will get funk growing quick.
      I got 3 breeding containers and 4 for larvae growth. Could scale up easily if you need more.

  4. Would like to see the energy consumption vs. energy production comparison. I’m going to guess running an electrical pump 8+ hours a day for n days probably consumes more carbon than the algae is producing.

    1. Not only in regards to electricity, but also losses in calories in comparison to how much space you use. You could use all this space to grow potatoes instead of allergy to insects to chickens where you lose calories each time to thermodynamics.

  5. This project really needs a microcontroller. That would simplify so much of the environment sensing. It would also automate data collection. ESP32 are trivial to set up.

    I wonder what the ideal scale for an algae farm is. I want a breakdown of biomass per electricity.

  6. Tell me you don’t watch Cody’s lab without saying “I don’t watch Cody’s lab?” “The system is called chicken hole”.

    Code is building a self sufficient mars simulation base near a rock named “chicken hole” hence “chicken hole base”. The rock is named “chicken hole” because there’s a hole shaped like a chicken. The algae system isn’t called a “chicken hole”.

  7. Wouldn’t a more efficient use of this space to use it for growing something you can eat, instead of going through the trouble of growing something to feed other animals first? Each time you filter calories through another organism you lose some due to thermodynamics.

      1. They plan on eating algae? I’m confused, the article says they are feeding the algae to insects and then feeding the insects to chickens. This doesn’t sounds like a limited resource scenario.

    1. Any commercial project that combines solar and Algae together with its solar capacity maximized? what I found in the website that most demo projects mainly targeting algae cultivation, especially low-value algae, how can this kind of project sustain in terms economic return?

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