But mining algae is not a slam-dunk. For one thing, LEDs are expensive.
"Our number one cost ... is going to be the lighting system," Vidt said.
And LEDs need electricity to operate. "It takes energy to make energy," Vidt said. "But we can take electricity from anywhere -- our personal favorite is geothermal -- and turn it into algae."
To naysayers who criticize the process for burning more energy than it produces, Vidt argues that the process brings more benefit than just biodiesel.
"Our other co-products, like environmental remediation and carbon dioxide sequestration, we don't know the price of those," Vidt said.
But the idea of growing algae underground has not gotten widespread support.
Summers said the project, which formally began about three years ago, initially received some funding from U.S. EPA but is currently funded internally.
The research team is also in talks with venture capitalists and mining companies, where it has seen some interest, Summers said.
"But we haven't been hugely successful," Summers added. "The idea of putting it underground is a barrier to acceptance."
Michael Melnick, a venture capitalist with CMEA Capital in California, said his firm is not currently investing in companies that use photobioreactors because of the high capital costs and technical challenges.
"Our bottom line, from looking at the economics of photobioreactors versus open ponds, is that the capital investment is so dramatically greater for photobioreactors," Melnick said. "We have avoided photobioreactors in our algae company to focus on open ponds. We think, from a capital perspective, that's the way to go."
But the Missouri researchers are undeterred. They are scaling up operations in an artificial mine they have built in the laboratory. And if all goes well, they could be operating out of a real mine within two to three years, Vidt said.
"It's a novel process that we have, but there's nothing 'Star Trek' about it," Vidt said. "We're not waiting around for some pie-in-the-sky room temperature fusion to come about. We're trying an alternative process that takes advantage of what we already have."
Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500