Algae growth device made from computer parts

By Lisa Gibson
Posted May 20, 2010, at 1:45 p.m. CST

Five students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have created an algae growth contraption from old computer parts and other waste materials that they say can help replace fossil fuels and bring algae growth for biofuel production down to the household level.

Bio-Grow was assembled with the side panels of an Apple G4 CPU tower, PVC piping and acrylic panels for structural support, an Apple iMac CRT for light and heat, and high-density foam for stability and insulation, according to team member and undergraduate student Megan Kenney. The iMac is controlled by a modified Dell Latitude CPX and supported by wood to keep it standing up on its back. A water pump aerates the algae and a faucet allows for extraction. A heat sink from a CPU was also used, along with copper coil found in a monitor to absorb much of the heat from the CRT and direct it into the algae tank, heating the tank while cooling the CRT.

If 6.5 percent of Americans had one in their homes, it could generate the amount of algae needed to replace petroleum with biodiesel, according to the team's calculations.

"Our goal of this project was twofold," Kenney said. "We hoped to give a second life to these electronics that would otherwise be discarded and toxic to the environment, while creating a piece of equipment that would drive down the production costs of algae." The economics of algae growth systems and their effective implementation are major barriers to a robust algal biofuel industry. "The team believes that algal biofuel will replace all diesel in the future due to its high oil content, protein and nutrients, and growth rates within a relatively small area," Kenney said.

Bio-Grow was created for a Sustainable Design Class and entered into the International E-Waste Competition, where it won second place in the Technical/Geek category. The competition is designed to prompt discussions about product designs for environmentally responsible computing and entertainment, according to the university.

Kenney and her team undergraduate students Timothy Harvey, Elliot DeVries, Mark Schnitzer and graduate student Saeidreza Shiftehfar have a patent pending on their device and plan to further develop it in the near future, she said.