Will algae become the next big thing in fertilizer?

Nitrogen from algae | On a farm in New Mexico, algae are fed and cared for like livestock

MORIARTY, N.M. — The next source of fertilizer might be growing in a tank in New Mexico.

All it takes is low-cost plant food, water and sunlight.

Researcher and entrepreneur Calvin Hildebrand is rolling the dice on a natural source of nitrogen fertilizer from algae.

He’s conducting his work on old Route 66, in the dry soil of New Mexico where irrigation is the only way to grow crops.

Hildebrand has been working with local farmer Sam Shook to provide an alternative to traditional nitrogen fertilizers.

“He has a new pivot and I have new concept,” said Hildebrand.

Billions of scenedesmus green algae are growing in a pair of 10,000 litre poly tanks. The algae was harvested from the edge of a pond on a local cattle ranch.

“We know these are native to the area and they both eat and fix nitrogen,” he said.

The algae are maintained in a carefully monitored environment inside a solar powered facility.

Air and carbon dioxide are fed to the algae using pumps. The tanks are shaded lightly from the desert sun to keep them warm, but not so warm as to kill the organisms.

The samples have been grown in the soils lab at a college in Santa Fe. The batch that Hildebrand is now working with has been growing for four months. However, in three weeks he can produce enough to spread on a field, in this case about 24,000 litres, along with irrigation water.

“We can produce them faster, but this is a very early stage in a production model,” he said about the collection of tanks, pumps, valves and pipes on Shook’s farm.

“They take a lot of attention, but once the growth process is underway, it is no different than raising some livestock. You need to feed them and ensure their environment is appropriate and they grow.

“These critters just take some of their food from the air and fix it into something they need, nitrogen,” Hildebrand said.

“Each one of those little algae is a little bundle of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium).”

Grid soil sampling is monitoring the effectiveness of the algae as a liquid fertilizer on the pivot-fed, 160-acre field, including one, two and three foot levels.

“Samples are tested at the (soil) lab in Amarillo, (Texas), so we can get objective measures of what is happening in the soil, not just the crop.”

He is also developing a remote monitoring system that will send a message to the operator if any of the growth parameters are exceeded.

“We monitor pH, nitrogen, temperature, not unlike looking after food processing systems or a distillery,” he said.

The prototype uses two grams of carbon dioxide for every gram of algae.

“It runs on sunlight and it sequesters carbon dioxide. Sounds like the crop we are hoping to grow with it,” he said, waving at a recently harvested triticale field.

Hildebrand said algae are known for their ability to remove nitrogen not only from the air but also from water and soil.

Land has been irrigated for generations in the intermountain area near Moriarty, N.M., east of Albuquerque, and nitrogen has moved down through porous soil into the local aquifer.

“There is a desire to rid the soil of those issues and we are hoping that the micro-algae will do that, too,” Hildebrand said about his company, Innovative Organic Solutions International.

He said investors in the project include a New Zealand environmental industry foundation.

“These types of businesses appeal to a variety of investors. A large farmer in Texas wants the technology for his own use. Others want it as a business opportunity. And of course, then there are green investors looking for something sustainable,” he said.

“Me, I’m an old guy now. I was in the real estate development business. I divided up a lot of land into urban lots … I’d like to give something back to the world before my time is up.”

The company plans to offer the technology to distributors on a franchise basis.

“We’re going to keep most of the research open source, and offer technical support that will make it financially appealing,” he said.

“It isn’t limited to southern regions. It could be operated in greenhouses and used in northern climates, but this a very low cost area with all our sunshine.”

For more information, contact Hildebrand at the Energy Conversion Corp. at 505-470-3585.

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