Saturday, April 25, 2009

Algae Biofuels

Kimberly Hawthorne

In his lab, Lance Schideman holds a small vial upside-down over a dish, waiting for the thick black substance to creep out. As soon as it does, the area immediately smells of crude oil. It’s hard to believe that this oil has not been drilled from the earth, but was actually produced from algae.

Algae biofuels not only provide a source of alternative fuel, but can also alleviate other environmental problems. Schideman, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Illinois, is currently involved in several research projects that incorporate algae biofuels with environmental issues.

“We are really trying to marry up environmental benefits with energy production,” Schideman said. “For too long these two things have competed.”

In one research project, Schideman and a team that includes engineering students are planning to use emissions from Abbott Power Plant, located on First Street in Champaign, to grow algae. “The idea is to show that we can sequester carbon dioxide into algae and subsequently convert algae into biofuels,” he said.

The project received funding in January from the Campus Sustainability Committee. Algae cultures are currently being grown in dozens of flasks in Schideman’s lab. In the next few weeks, reactors will be installed at the power plant and algae growth can begin.

Because it is a demonstration project, an “insignificant quantity” of carbon dioxide will be diverted from the power plant’s system to grow algae, Schideman said. After the project proves its viability, a larger scale project is possible, but would require a massive land area to consume all of the carbon dioxide emissions, he added.

While it is not the first of its kind, the algae sequestration project at Abbott Power Plant is unique in that the algae will be nourished by wastewater. According to Manfredo Seufferheld, assistant professor in the department of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University, the necessary nutrients for algae growth are usually provided through fertilizers, which can add a significant cost to the process.

Seufferheld’s research focuses on growing algae under stress, which causes the cells to produce more oil but also stunts their growth. Despite a decreased growth rate, algae can grow in areas where other organisms cannot, such as salty groundwater and wastewater, he said.

Since last August, Schideman has been researching methods to grow algae on animal wastewaters. The project, funded by the Dudley Smith Initiative, treats wastewater by allowing algae to grow on it and remove its nutrients. The resulting algal biomass is then converted into fuel.

“We have an environmental benefit in that we eat up the nutrients from the animal waste and don’t discharge them into the environment and, at the same time, we have a fuel benefit,” Schideman said.

According to Seufferheld, untreated wastewaters are problematic when dumped into rivers and lakes, creating algae breeding grounds. Too much algae can degrade an ecosystem by disrupting its oxygen cycle, he said.

This is occurring in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is believed that algae are nourished by agricultural fertilizer run-off in the Mississippi River. When the algae blooms die, bacteria consume them and the ecosystem’s oxygen, Schideman said.

In another project funded by the Office of Research in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, Schideman is investigating ways to harvest the Gulf’s algae for biofuel production. Harvesting it would cause more immediate effects on the aquatic ecosystem than other solutions to the fertilizer problem, which include wetland construction along the Mississippi River and a reduction in fertilizer use.

Algae’s ability to flourish in marginal environments presents a major advantage to its use as a biofuel source. According to Seufferheld, growing algae in otherwise useless areas rather than on farmland may relieve some of the controversies in the food versus fuel debate, which is a major concern with crop biofuels.

Compared with using crops for fuel, algae is much more efficient. “Algae will fall in the range of 1,000 to 10,000 gallons per acre, depending on which strain you use and how much you’re willing to project lab conditions into full-scale field conditions,” Schideman said. “Full-scale field trials right now are operating in the range of 2,000 to 2,500 gallons per acre.” Corn only produces 300 to 500 gallons of ethanol per acre, he added.

The idea of algal biofuels may seem outrageous, but is actually gaining popularity: according to both Seufferheld and Schideman, commercial airline jets have successfully been flown using algae biofuels. They are also compatible with today’s cars.

“It’s a promising area that we can use to solve this problem of marginal lands,” Seufferheld said, adding that although algae biofuels are not the “magic cure” to our petroleum issue, they may become a very important source of alternative fuel. However, they are still expensive to produce due to costs associated with harvesting and oil extraction, he said.

Schideman hopes to see cost-efficient technologies for algae biofuels in ten years, but predicts that it will take 30 to 50 years for infrastructure and regulations to catch up with science. In the meantime, he plans to offer tours of the sequestration project at Abbott Power Plant during the fall semester.

1 comment:

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