Researchers develop algae biofuel

In the near future, people could be filling up their cars with biofuels made from algae.

Lance Schideman, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, said certain kinds of the seaweed can be turned into biodiesel, which has some advantages over corn-based ethanol. Schideman will give a lecture on the topic Monday at 4 p.m. in the ACES library.

“The basic idea with algae is that some algae have a high lipid (fat) count, which can be turned into biodiesel,” Schideman said. “One area where we’ve made some progress is making algae into a biocrude product via hydrothermal process (pressure-cooking), when we can convert the non-oils into oils,” Schideman said.

He added that biodiesel does not require changes to a vehicle’s engine, like ethanol does. It is also more energy-dense, containing an estimated 20 percent more energy, he said.

“Algae can grow very fast, so the productivity is faster than corn or other possibilities to biofuels,” Schideman said. “(It) can be grown on water bodies, so it doesn’t compete for prime agriculture land.”

He added that it can grow in both fresh and salt water, even if the water is polluted.

However, there are some limitations to using algae as a fuel.

“One is that you must have high-oil algae (to convert to fuel),” Schideman said.

Another problem is that there are two general categories: algae closely related to plants and bacterial algae, said Manfredo Seufferheld, assistant professor of crop sciences who studies the plant’s biology. Bacterial algae is easier to cultivate, he added. Some plant-like algae have a tendency to have more oils than bacterial algae, and some of the fastest-growing algae are not high in oil, Schideman said.

Getting rid of the water that the algae grows in is also a problem, but pressure-cooking is a good way to get around this. Pressure-cooking the algae produces self-separating oil, meaning it can be easily separated from the water Schideman said.

“For water removal, we looked at using flocculation, a chemical process that causes algae to flock together.” said Derek Vardon, a senior in Engineering who researches the viability of algae as an energy source at the Abbott Power Plant.

“The other aspect of (limitations) is the biology of algae, because we are going to grow them in contaminated waters. Depending on the species, we need to know the requirements,” Seufferheld said.

Seufferheld said he is trying to understand how the photosynthesis process for algae works and improve how the algae grow.

Yan Zhou, graduate student in agricultural and biological engineering, said she focuses on fast-growing algae and using waste water to grow it. As the algae is growing, it cleans the water and the air.

“We are enhancing the environment, while producing energy,” Zhou said.

One advantage is that water used to grow fast-growing algae contains high nutrients, so nutrients can be recycled and money and water can be saved, Zhou said.

While there are some limitations, however, commercial use of an algae-produced biofuel might not be that far off.

“We could have some algae fuels in the next ten years,” Schideman said.