One day recently my friend Oliver Fix and his colleague Rudy Behrens arrived at my home on the Rogue River in Oregon with a bucket to scoop up some of the bright green film called duckweed that covers the pond. “Please, take all you can,” I said. “Make it go away!” But the two men joked that I should be less giving. Because duckweed grows so incredibly fast, they say it is valuable as a zero-emission “green coal.” In fact, they were gathering the weed for the fi rst electric power plant, called a bioenergy dome, that is being built by Pacific Domes in nearby Ashland (PacificDomes.com).
Behrens, who built the prototype, is a former aerospace engineer now specializing in biospheres who also won a Best Renewable Energy award in conjunction with Rutgers University. According to Behrens, a bioenergy dome creates an “eternal spring” inside that dramatically increases the growth of duckweed, which is then burned in a special oven to produce electricity. The residue is potash and micronutrients, as well as CO2 and water vapor, which all help to grow more duckweed. As part of the system, the pond is stocked with fi sh, and the dome is stacked with trays of hydroponic vegetables. Under optimal conditions a 24-foot dome might generate 5 kilowatts of electricity (plenty for a home) and produce 10 pounds of vegetables per day, as well as the occasional fi sh. A 36-foot dome might generate 20kw and 50 pounds of vegetables. And a 60-foot dome might generate 180kw, enough for a village. Better still, the domes supposedly earn their construction costs within a year.
Far-fetched? Maybe not. Oliver Fix, who heads the project for Pacific Domes, won an Olympic gold medal in whitewater slalom kayaking and is superbly attuned to natural power. We met because he graciously offered to design the whitewater course we’re building here on the Rogue River to train kids for the 2016 Olympics. Among his dreams is to create a dome capable of powering the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, an artificial river that now requires more than a million dollars’ worth of electricity per year to run its pumps. At our small training center on the Rogue, we’re putting up solar panels to run the swimming pool (for roll practice), but the pond might power the entire project and be cheaper than more solar — and a heck of a lot safer than coal or nuclear. We’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, if you could use some duckweed, just stop by.