Ask MAKE is a monthly column where we answer your questions. Send your vexing conundrums on any aspect of making to [email protected] If we don’t have the answer, we’ll scare up somebody who does.

Phil asks:

I’m curious to learn more about some of the good “DIY algae growing at home” web resources for family scale production of algae fuel. Are there any available kits or books about this yet? (I’d be looking to spend less than $2,500.)
This Stanford student’s YouTube video looks intriguing, although I don’t happen to have a spare centrifuge lying around.

Hi Phil,
As far as I can tell, making liquid fuel from an algae bioreactor does, in fact, require a centrifuge to extract the oils from the algae. However, you can harvest the algae and make solid fuel from it through a simple drying process, which could be used for home heating. But be aware that producing even a small amount of dry fuel requires a sizable amount of biomass. For example, according to Algae Lab “To grow 100g of Spirulina a day would take roughly 20 square meters, or 216 square feet. It would have to get plenty of sun.”

If you’d still like to explore your own algae bioreactor for either solid fuel or food (spirulina), there are a couple of ways to go. Michael Fischer, the Stanford student from the video you sent, shows how to create his setup on an Instructables page. Also, algal fuel guru Aaron Baum sells starter kits through his site Algae Lab. If you want a professional consultant for a larger system, I’d recommend contacting him.

If anyone has experience with algae bioreactors or has more information, please post in the comments.

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Michael Colombo

Michael Colombo

In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens’ educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.

  • davidcdean

    I’d like to see a DIY biohydrogen source used to power a project. Was just looking at:

  • Jack Nymus

    Nice shoes!

  • freewestray

    They make the stuff here buddy hundreds of gallons of the stuff, good post for the micro producer that.

    • Michael Colombo

      Sorry, where exactly do they make it?

      • freewestray

        Orkney, Google Earth will show you where I am, the clue is in my name.

  • Lurker
  • Travis

    Sounded like he started up an internal combustion engine to pump CO2 in to the bottles…..

  • Dominic Muren (@dmuren)

    Algal biofuels really don’t make much sense in a home-scale — the coolest thing about them is that they are basically a liquid plant, and can therefore be pumped through an industrial-scale farm and processing facility (although, this hasn’t yet been fully proven out long-term, since they field is so new).

    If you’re a person with an average sized yard (between 0.15 and 1 acre) and you live in a temperate climate (North America, Europe, etc.) you’re probably better off growing Oilseed sunflowers, since they are super easy to keep healthy, easy to harvest, relatively easy to process, produce a large amount of oil per mass, and are actually pretty to look at for the rest of the year.

    There are other oil crops like rapeseed, meadowfoam, soybean, peanuts, etc, but all of these are better for mechanized harvest, and harder to get oil out of.

  • Pingback: Algae → Energy → Algae !? | annatherouxling()

  • VirtualGathis

    “As far as I can tell, making liquid fuel from an algae bioreactor does, in fact, require a centrifuge to extract the oils from the algae.”

    This is not an absolute, though other systems may still require significant capital investment.
    OriginOil has a system that breaks the algea without separating it from the water. The oil and biomass then precipitate out. Because the oil floats and the biomass sinks it is possible to skim the oil off the top and the biomass off the bottom at 98% purity. I have no idea what one of these: costs though, but it would probably still be outside a home use case price range.