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Honda engineers use algae to capture emissions in spare time

Instead of fishing or playing golf, a pair of Honda Powersports engineers have been spending their weekends collecting kitchen grease from bars and restaurants and converting it to homemade biodiesel fuel.

Now, their alternative energy hobby is turning into a much larger scale project. Experts said their work at Honda’s Research and Development facility in Raymond, Ohio demonstrated a possible route to capture carbon emissions and recycle it into algae that can potentially be used to make food products or plastics along with a variety of other products.

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The project started when engineers Dan Sellars and Joel Agner learned they had a mutual interest in developing cleaner fuels. But over time their experiments expanded into the development of a system that uses discarded vegetable oils to power a generator that pulls carbon dioxide from the building into a compressor.

The compressor stores the exhaust and pushes the CO2 to feed an algae farm housed in a series of tubes along the side of the research facility. That generator also charges an electric Honda Fit, which in turn provides enough power to run the algae farm for about 22 hours a day.

“At the end, we were able to demonstrate using algae, you can essentially use the power of the sun to take back in CO2 emissions,” Sellars said.

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The end result, Sellars said, is a system that recycles food waste, slashes carbon dioxide emissions produced from vehicle testing at the facility and uses those emissions to provide nutrients for an algae farm. The algae can be used to make a variety of products, from plastics to animal feed or fertilizer.

The project’s roots stretch back several years, when Agner and Sellars built a biodiesel waste processor on Sellars’ garage. Initially, Agner used the biodiesel fuel they produced to drive his own personal vehicle to and from work. Initially, Agner said he worked with friends and relatives to save leftover kitchen oil from bars, restaurants and other local businesses. But it eventually dawned on them they had a readily available source from Honda’s cafeteria. The discarded kitchen oil from Honda’s cafeteria now fuels the generator that makes the rest of the project work.

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“Honda had the best and cleanest oils so we were happy we had the ability to take that off their hands,” Agner joked.

That hobby evolved into looking for ways to reduce C02, and their research led them to focus on growing algae, which stores C02 and releases oxygen. The experiments started on a tiny scale, with a test tube filled with green algae just outside the facility.

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“We did get some security calls asking what’s that stuff in the parking lot,” Agner joked.

They eventually pitched their idea to Honda executives as part of a company contest and it grew into a demonstration that showed the facility could slash its carbon footprint. The auto maker has previously announced a Triple Zero initiative that includes eventually eliminating carbon emissions at its facilities and contributing no waste to landfills.

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“We thought we might get laughed out of the room but it was pretty well received,” Sellars said.

They credited Dan Wells, the research site’s facilities engineer, with making the project possible. Wells oversaw most of the structural changes at the site needed to make the project work, and also came up with the plan to draw the C02 for the experiment from emissions from vehicles being tested at the facility. Large glass tubes filled with growing algae ran alongside the research facility until earlier this month when they were removed due to concerns they’d freeze. Both have full-time jobs at Honda, so the bulk of the work was done in their spare time on nights and weekends.

Now, Honda is working with researchers from Ohio University to look for ways to expand their experiments and explore potential uses for the algae. Much of the work is being funded with a $200,000 grant from the Ohio Water Development Authority, according to information from the company.

One of the challenges is as the system grows bigger, the easier it is for contaminants to affect the algae, Bayless said. But the experiments at the R&D facility showed at least it can work on a relatively small scale.

“My vision is to scale it up,” said David Bayless, a professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio University. He initially served as a consultant and became a partner once the grant was approved. “If it’s going to make a real difference in emission control it’s going to need to be a lot bigger.”

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