October 10, 2009

VIMS receives $3 million to turn York river algae into biodiesel

Because it ruins beach time, kills fish, and hides errant golf balls, algae is rarely a fun topic.

Not so at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, where researchers are smiling at the idea of turning the seaweed into energy that will run automobiles.

VIMS is the recipient of $3 million — seed money from StatoilHydro, a Norwegian energy company — to convert algae from the York River into biodiesel fuel. The plan is to cut the amount of harmful nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, entering the Chesapeake Bay and create an alternative source of energy.

"What we really want to do is turn pollution into fuel," said J. Emmett Duffy, a VIMS professor leading the program.

VIMS will pump water from the river near its Gloucester Point campus onto a large conveyor belt. A plastic screen on the belt will trap the nutrients while the water is recycled back into the river.

The nutrients, which sit on the belt for at least a week, turn into algae before researchers harvest and store it. From there, researchers take the algae into a lab where oils are extracted and converted into biodiesel.

Often an afterthought to other forms of biofuel production, most notably corn and soybeans, harnessing algae as an energy source is gaining traction.For example, oil giant Exxon Mobil announced earlier this summer it would spend $600 million to research and develop algae-based biofuels. Exxon followed Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who invested in a San Diego-based biofuels company the year before.

The industry is also starting to bud in Virginia. Old Dominion University and Virginia Commonwealth University are also producing algae for biodiesel.

Patrick Hatcher, a scientist who leads the ODU effort, said the idea of turning algae into fuel surfaced in the 1980s. But demand for alternative fuels waned — as did funding — a decade later as oil prices dropped, he said. As a result, infrastructure, such as biodiesel stations, isn't in place.

That could be changing.

In addition to private investors like Gates and Exxon, the U.S. Department of Energy has pledged at least $50 million toward developing algae biofuels. Unlike corn or soybeans, algae harvesting doesn't take away farm land, Duffy said. It's also 10 to 100 times more productive than corn or soybeans, he said.

Once the research is done and networks in place, Hatcher envisions commercial algae farmers across the state. Before that happens, though, "you have to have someone with money," he said.

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