September 23, 2009

U teams up to develop algae biofuel

The University is working with businesses and other schools to develop algae into a biofuel.
Roger Ruan, the University researcher working on the wastewater algae project, examines algae Friday in St.Paul.

Responding to governments and consumers that are increasingly desperate to find an alternative to petroleum, the University is forming partnerships across the nation to look into one substitute in particular: algae as a biofuel.

The University teamed up with Lockheed Martin and 3M to grab a $15 million stimulus grant to take an already-running algae-to-fuel research project to the next level.

The project, which began in 2007, is using a Metropolitan Council-owned plant in St. Paul to grow algae on municipal waste water and test their ability to both remove pollutants and make significant amounts of oil that can be turned into fuel.

The project has struggled to maintain funding in the past, but University officials hope this grant will fund the next phase: developing a commercial pilot system to produce algae in mass quantities, and in all climates.

The University was also asked to join a consortium with Arizona State University — which is also seeking stimulus dollars — to investigate the potential to commercially produce a variety of biofuels, such as renewable gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

“There are a number of groups pursuing this money and it’s a lot of money,” Rod Larkins, associate director of the University’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, said. “We think this is a winner take all kind of deal.”

Only a few consortiums researching algae fuel will be funded by the stimulus nationwide, each using around $50 million for their respective projects, Larkins said.

Another consortium may be in the works, but plans are not finalized yet, Larkins said.

Food verses fuel

Doubts about the ability for biofuels to replace oil have not been far behind developments, and biofuels produced from food crops like sugarcane and corn have been blamed for higher food prices worldwide.

But with rising oil prices and a push from the government for cleaner energy, algae fuel has been thrown into the center of the biofuels debate. The reason: fuel produced from algae eliminates the food verses fuel question, Larkins said.

At its most basic level, algae only needs sunlight, water, carbon dioxide and fundamental nutrients to grow. Algae can be cultivated on non-arable land using wastewater or seawater, are grown easily in controlled conditions and can double their size in a day.

“People are thinking that algae is probably the one that could produce a significant energy crop to solve the energy issue,” said Roger Ruan, the University researcher working on the waste water algae project.

Business interest

The interest in algae as a fuel source now permeates more than just research circles.

In July, U.S. oil giant Exxon Mobil said they planned to invest up to $600 million in research dedicated to turning algae into fuel. “Exxon Mobil has been the most hostile oil company to renewables, and their first investment was in algae?” Todd Taylor, a renewable energy attorney with Fredrikson and Byron, said. “That tells you something.”

Taylor, in cahoots with the University, also put on a conference in August which addressed algae potential for businesses. The conference drew 130 individuals, many of them business leaders in the Midwest who want to learn more about algae’s potential, Taylor said.

However, many businesses aren’t in the position to start algae operations now.

“Even the most aggressive, well-funded algae companies aren’t going to start and ramp up algae projects until 2011 and 2012,” Taylor said, adding that for most businesses, the commercial technology and funds, just aren’t there yet.

Are algae the future? Not yet.

The exact science of turning algae into fuel is still being developed, and many question its ability to produce fuel on a scale that can meet transportation needs.

Then there is the issue of cost.

The U.S. Department of Energy had to abandon a 20-year-long algal biofuel research project in 1996 because of the relatively high cost of turning algae into fuel and low cost of petroleum.

“There is still a ways to go with algae,” Ruan said.

Despite this, scientists and companies all over the world are trying to be the first to figure out the best ways to create algae biofuels, a discovery that Larkins thinks will eventually join with other biofuels to solve energy issues.

“The reality is that algae will not be the only source of biofuels,” Larkins said. “There probably is not a silver bullet related to biofuels, more like silver buckshot.”

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