By Justin Bannister
Green means Go for NMSU’s algae research
It’s pond scum. It’s also a potential source for environmentally friendly gasoline, jet fuel, nutritional supplements and a host of other beneficial products. A fully operational algae industry could mean big bucks for the state’s economy and that’s why New Mexico State University’s newly created Algal Bioenergy Program is working to maximize algae’s potential.
The Algal Bioenergy Program is a centralized effort to coordinate research and economic development opportunities related to fuels made from algae. Right now, the U.S. imports approximately $173 billion a year in foreign oil. If a percentage of that could be replaced by fuel made from algae, there is a potential for hundreds of thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in new tax revenue.
“An algae industry would create jobs from farm workers to accountants to scientists and engineers,” said Vimal Chaitanya, NMSU’s vice president for research. “These would be jobs that cannot be shipped overseas.”
Like most plants, algae use sunlight and carbon dioxide from the air to produce oil. Unlike ethanol, produced mainly from corn, an algae-based fuel would not affect a major U.S. food source. Algal fuels can also be stored in the same tanks, shipped through the same pipelines and run in the same engines as traditional fuels without any necessary modifications.
Algae grows best in areas with lots of high-intensity sunshine, relatively few cloudy days and warm temperatures, all of which are found in New Mexico. The state also has access to brackish water supplies unsuitable for other agricultural purposes, but perfect for growing plants accustomed to living in the salty ocean.
NMSU currently has scientists researching every step of the algae production process, including cultivating, harvesting, extracting, refining and fuel testing.
U.S. Department of Energy study
NMSU is part of a consortium awarded $49 million by the U.S. Department of Energy to study the commercialization of algae-based fuel. The group, known as the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts, will seek to break down critical barriers to widespread adoption of algae-based fuel.
“We are developing a scalable system for the cultivation and harvesting of algae as well as the extraction of biocrude oils for sale to agro-businesses and fuel refineries,” said Peter Lammers, an NMSU research professor and technical director of the Algal Bioenergy Program.
“There are many challenges to this project, including environmental and economic impacts,” said C. Meghan Starbuck, an assistant professor in the NMSU College of Business. “We are fortunate that here in New Mexico we have several commercial entities working to develop algal-based fuels. Sapphire Energy Inc. and the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management are important partners with NMSU in understanding large-scale cultivation and commercialization issues. The partnerships between NMSU on the academic side, private industry and government provide critical resources and information to help move this important industry toward commercialization.”
U.S. Air Force study
NMSU is part of another study for the U.S. military 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. “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 annually. 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 Air Force project will focus on the steps needed to create a large-scale algae-based jet fuel operation.
“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.
NMSU’s algae ponds
To complement its research, NMSU is producing its own algae from two 1,000-liter raceway algae ponds at the university’s Fabian Garcia Research Center. Construction on another two 1,000-liter raceway ponds, as well as a 4,000-liter photobioreacter, which controls the conditions for algae growth, will be completed by April.
“At NMSU, we’ve learned a lot in the past few years. Not many universities are doing the entire process starting from cultivation all the way to fuel testing,” said Nirmala Khandan, a civil engineering professor at NMSU. His group will produce four kilograms of dry algae a month to hand over to other NMSU researchers for their work.
“Considering we started four years ago from scratch, this is impressive. More importantly, we’re also able to train master’s and Ph.D. students in this emerging field and compete with major universities for funding in this area,” Khandan said.
His group will also continue working to optimize the algae production process, trying to find the right mixture of light and nutrients for maximum yield.
NMSU has a separate partnership with the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management, a private company, which leases space at NMSU’s Agricultural Science Center at Artesia to grow and test algae.
In addition to fuel applications, Lammers said algae are rich in co-products, which can help make algae production more economically viable. Those co-products include carotenoids, omega-3 fatty acids and other high-value nutrients essential to human health. Other co-products include animal feed, industrial feedstocks and compounds with potential medical applications.
“Relative to other crops, there hasn’t been much research into microalgae,” Lammers said. “There’s been next to no research into the bacteria communities associated with algae. There’s a tremendous amount of competition among the bacteria living with algae. We think that research into algal production ecology may identify new biochemical pathways that can be developed into algal crop protection products, perhaps even novel antibiotics.”