Right next to a commercial nursery and greenhouse operation on the outskirts of Wooster, paddlewheels keep water constantly moving in four 30-by-200-foot ponds shaped like automotive raceway circuits. The water is deep green and murky.
That's just how Phil Lane likes it.
Lane is a program manager for Touchstone Research Laboratory, a West Virginia-based company that operates this unusual facility on a stretch of farmland where the remnants of corn and soybean fields are now buried under snow.
And the stuff making the ponds green is another type of crop that could one day grow alongside the more traditional fare occupying Ohio fields: algae.
"Algae can be grown just about anywhere, so we are not competing with farmland for growing food crops," said Lane, who manages the Wooster algae pilot facility. "Algae can add value to marginal lands, generating a crop that can be turned into biofuel and a variety of bioproducts."
Algae farming is expanding across the United States and around the world, showing great promise as a fast-growing and efficient source of natural oil for renewable transportation fuel, bio-plastics, food supplements and many other products.
Growing algae in places like Ohio may sound like a strange proposition, especially in the middle of winter. After all, most large-scale algae operations are found in warmer climates with lots of sunshine, as these conditions allow for year-round production. However, the project in Wooster is seeking to change that.
Built in late 2011 at Cedar Lane Farms, the two indoor and two outdoor raceway ponds host collaborative research between Touchstone and Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), whose Wooster campus is located just a few miles from this site.
OARDC is the research arm of Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
Funded by close to $7 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Ohio Coal Development Office, this research involves testing of three innovative technologies that seek to make algae farming viable, more cost-effective and sustainable in a wider variety of climates and locations.
The first technology, previously developed by Touchstone exclusively for algae production, is a phase-changing material that covers a majority of the pond surface. This material regulates daily temperature, helping the algae grow during colder periods; controls the infiltration of invasive species; and reduces water evaporation, which is a big problem with open-pond algae systems.