Algae-Based Fuel Development Continues
The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a $5 million grant to a multi-institutional team led by NMSU to improve algae-based fuels compatible with existing refineries. That accomplishment, and the many collaborations created by the associated research, was celebrated recently at the first NMSU Research Rally of the academic year.
Peter Lammers, principal investigator on the project and director of the NMSU Algal Bioenergy team, addressed a standing-room-only crowd in O’Donnell Hall.
“This was the most complex document I’ve ever written, by far,” he said of the proposal to the Department of Energy. “The competition was fierce and we’re honored to lead this team.”
The project is called REAP: Realization of Algae Potential, and has partners at institutions including Los Alamos, Argonne and Pacific Northwest national laboratories; Washington State and Michigan State universities; and four companies – Phycal, Algenol Biofuels, Pan Pacific Technologies and UOP-Honeywell.
Key goals of the 2.5-year project are to improve the yields and stability of algal biomass and cultivation systems while also improving oil content at harvest.
The project reaches across several NMSU departments, including chemical engineering, civil engineering, plant and environmental sciences, fishery and wildlife sciences, the molecular biology program and the Bio-Security and Food Safety Laboratory. NMSU’s key role will be to integrate all of the unit operations at a single location to demonstrate start-to-finish process compatibility.
“Pete Lammers is the poster child for what I want to see more of happening here,” said NMSU President Garrey Carruthers. “He’s leading multidisciplinary, multisite, multiuniversity research.”
Lammers said that his team likes to think of algal cultivation as a platform much like a mobile phone. The work the REAP team is doing will allow scientists around the world to develop many new applications for algae-based biotechnology.
“What we’re trying to do is address the issue of renewable energy produced in a carbon-neutral fashion. What that means is using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and energy from the sunlight to produce a petroleum facsimile,” Lammers said. “It’s going to look enough like petroleum that we can put it into an existing refinery to make green diesel, gasoline, even jet fuel.”
To achieve this, the team is working to develop a platform that will not only create algal-based biofuels, but will also work within the natural resource constraints of the desert Southwest. The primary resource concern, of course, is water.
Cultivating algae in open water systems is not likely to work in a sustainable way in scales that are necessary in New Mexico, even if researchers used produced water from oil and gas extraction, or underground brackish water. It would still limit production capacity because of evaporative water losses and the amount of fresh water needed for replacing those losses. The REAP team is using closed, evaporation-proof photobioreactor systems with a culture of algae that originally evolved in hot springs, and so are more tolerant of the extreme heat in the enclosed systems.
The process is even potentially being tied into wastewater treatment.
“The process will allow us to make the treatment of municipal wastewater an energy positive, and therefore profitable enterprise,” Lammers said. “That represents a stepping stone between the technology that’s available today and the large-scale application of it that would be necessary for production of fuels at a significant rate in the desert Southwest.”
The REAP award follows two other federal awards for the NMSU Algal Bioenergy team – Department of Energy funding through the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts consortium amounting to $700,000 over two years for NMSU to support the algal cultivation testbed located at the Fabian Garcia Science Center, and a National Science Foundation EPSCoR award for which NMSU will get $1.6 million over five years for the algal effort.
The net purpose of all three of those grants is to solve these major national renewable energy problems with a component that is environmentally responsible and sustainable in the long-term.
“We see the technology we’re developing as a balancing factor that will allow us to begin to address carbon dioxide increases and associated climate change issues,” Lammers said.