Las Cruces – The U.S. military wants New Mexico State University to find improved ways to turn algae into a sustainable source for jet fuel. The research project is part of a $2.346 million grant funded by the Air Force where NMSU will study better ways to grow algae and refine its oil while working with the University of Central Florida to determine the effects of algae-based fuel on jet engines.
"Demand for petroleum will eventually outpace the supply," said Shuguang Deng, a chemical engineering professor at NMSU and the lead researcher on the project. "The use of petroleum-based jet fuel is not sustainable and negatively impacts the environment. That's a national security issue."
Deng said the U.S. Department of Defense consumes 4.6 billion gallons of jet fuel each year and all airplanes globally consume approximately 80 billion gallons of jet fuel yearly. He believes with that level of consumption, the sustainable use of biofuels for aviation has the potential to create far-reaching military and commercial development opportunities.
The research outlined by the grant is meant to develop the technologies needed to establish a viable algal biofuel alternative for replacing petroleum-based jet fuel in the U.S. military. The main tasks focus on cultivating algae, extracting its oils and developing other useful products during this process. Researchers will also study the effects of biofuels on engine operations, the process for scaling-up operations and the overall economics of the algae production process.
Deng said the project will combine the strengths in research programs at NMSU and UCF to develop sustainable biofuels for aviation, train engineers in the field and potentially develop new business opportunities in both New Mexico and Florida.
"Algal biofuels look very promising, but there are a lot of technical issues," Deng said. "Algae have the highest energy content of plants. Only algae can meet the demand for a renewable energy source. I expect that in five to 10 years, we'll start seeing algal biofuels on the market."
Deng said researchers must increase the biomass weight of algae, increase the lipid content and focus on harvesting and extraction techniques. The work is being done as part of NMSU's newly created Algal Bioenergy Program, a centralized effort to coordinate research and economic development opportunities related to fuels made from algae.
New Mexico is recognized as an ideal location for growing algae because it has lots of high-intensity sunshine, relatively few cloudy days and access to brackish water supplies, which can be used to grow algae.
Other NMSU researchers involved in this project include Nirmala Khandan and Hongmei Luo in the College of Engineering; Jiannong Xu and Wayne Van Voorhies in the College of Arts and Sciences; Shannon Ivey and Tanner Schaub in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences; and Meghan Starbuck in the College of Business.