Edition 2015

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Fueling discoveries

By Emily C. Kelley

NMSU leads team seeking potential for algal biofuels

A multi-institutional team led by New Mexico State University is striving to improve algae-based fuels compatible with existing refineries, including jet fuels.

The NMSU team secured one of four $5 million grants from the U.S. Department of Energy to improve algal biomass yields.

The project, called REAP: Realization of Algae Potential, has partners at institutions including Los Alamos, Argonne and Pacific Northwest national laboratories; Washington State and Michigan State universities; and three companies –Algenol Biofuels, Pan Pacific Technologies and UOP-Honeywell.

Sapphire Energy, with pilot facilities located in Las Cruces and Columbus, N.M., also received a $5 million award, a major coup for New Mexico in the national competition for energy research dollars. Peter Lammers is the principal investigator on the project and director of the NMSU Algal Bioenergy team. Three key goals of the 2.5-year project are to improve the yields and stability of algal biomass and cultivation systems, improve oil content at harvest and convert the biomass into a biocrude oil, while recycling nitrogen and phosphorus back to algae cultivation.

“We’re trying to address the issue of renewable energy in a carbon-neutral fashion. That means 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 an existing refinery can blend it with petroleum to make diesel, gasoline, even jet fuel.”

The team is working to develop a platform that will create algal-based biofuels within the natural resource constraints of the desert Southwest. The primary resource concern is water.

Peter Lammers, left, gives U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich

NMSU’s Peter Lammers, left, gives U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich a tour of the algal biofuel site at NMSU’s Fabian Garcia Research Center.

Lammers said that his team is working on several enclosed algae cultivation platforms that severely limit evaporative water loss, a critical design feature for arid ecosystems. The REAP team has successfully grown novel algal strains isolated from hot springs at those temperatures using bioreactor designs from collaborating algal biotech companies Algenol Biofuels and Sapphire Energy.  The platform also will perform wastewater treatment since the algae remove nitrogen and phosphorus from water using photosynthetic energy from sunlight.

“The final, mature cultivation platform design will enable treatment of municipal wastewater in an energy positive, and therefore profitable manner,” Lammers said. “That represents an economic stepping stone specifically designed for the arid Southwest where land is inexpensive but water is scarce.”

An algae-based wastewater treatment plant for one million people would require about 7,000 acres and produce about 2,500 gallons of biocrude oil per acre per year.

The REAP award follows two other federal awards for the NMSU Algal Bioenergy team – DOE funding amounting to $700,000 over two years for NMSU 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 major national renewable energy problems in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner.

“This can only happen if the renewable fuels produced are cost competitive with petroleum at very large scales,” Lammers said. “Recycling nutrients is a key requirement at very large scales in order to avoid competition for fertilizer components needed for food production.”

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 within the REAP project will be to integrate and optimize all of the unit operations at a single location to demonstrate start-to-finish process compatibility.

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