College students and professors seek to convert algae into biofuel

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April 1, 2011

12:01 AM

The College of William and Mary has submerged itself into the world of microbiology and biofuels. Since last spring, a group of College professors and students have been working to take algae from Lake Matoaka and use it as a replacement for fossil fuels.

Karl Kuschner, physics professor and project manager of the ongoing study, has worked with a small-scale algae extractor near the Keck Environmental Field Lab. The small-scale experiment is associated with the Chesapeake Algae Project, a consortium developing algae cultivation and harvesting equipment for natural environments including rivers, bays and oceans.

“It has a possibility of being a very green energy; it also doesn’t use any arable land,” Kuschner said. “That’s a huge problem with corn for example, you’re taking people’s food and you’re making gas out of it.”

Professors from the College were put in contact with professors from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who were working on their plan to have wild algae converted into biofuels. According to Kuschner, they were put in contact with Blackrock Energy, a local research firm, and Statoil, a Norwegian energy firm.

“The idea is that you would put some sort of substrate in the water, and the algae would grow on it, then you would harvest the algae and use it as biomass, same a corn for ethanol,” Kuschner said. “This is a big alternative energy push to use biomass for fuel. Algae are a well-known biomass, but it’s not something that is economically feasible yet.”

In September, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded the College $500,000 to support the pursuit of some basic-science issues that helped the project. Along with funding from Statoil, the project at Matoaka has been in development for a year. This May, however, unless those involved can find a new source, the project will run out of funding, causing a halt to all research.

“I think it’s something that definitely needs to be done, it’s a good avenue, it looks very promising, and we made good progress,” David Henry ’14, a student who worked alongside the team of students and faculty, said. “Right now were currently looking for funding, because we run out in May.”

The project was started after pollution in the Chesapeake Bay became evident. In an attempt to clean the bay and to create an alternative energy source, the Chesapeake Algae Project is developing the ability to convert a harmful part of the ecosystem into biofuel.

“What happens is, all this waste water and fertilizer and stuff pour into the Chesapeake Bay, and then you have this big algae boom,” Kuschner said. “It just loves the stuff, and that’s good because it sucks up carbon dioxide and releases oxygen because it’s a plant. But what happens is that oxygen goes into the atmosphere, the algae quits growing, and it starts dying and settles to the bottom. Then it starts sucking oxygen out of the water as it decomposes. The water becomes a big dead zone.”

Most algae fuel research projects are based on the cultivation of a single species of algae that has high lipid content. Dennis Manos, the College’s Vice Provost for Research, notes that the project differs from other algae biofuel initiatives in using wild, naturally growing algae species as a basis for various energy products.

“We take these excess nutrients, we grow the algae, but we take the algae out of the water before it dies,” Manos said. “So were taking live algae out and harvesting it, along with its nutrients, and then were using that for other purposes. So you don’t get this dead zone, and you get all these excess nutrients pulled out of the water and you get biofuels.”

If they receive additional funding, members of the project want to see an increase in productivity.

“Now that we have the basic structure down, we’re just trying to be efficient in our extraction of the algae,” Henry said. “You don’t need any heat, you don’t need any light, you don’t need any pumps, you use the natural tidal flows, you use the nutrients, natural sunlight, existing fertilizer, and existing water, so the only energy costs are building the thing and harvesting [the algae].”

Although the project stresses the environmental advantage of using algae as biofuel, the team recognizes that there are still risks and downsides to the research.

“The big problem is that it is wild algae and these all kinds of other critters in there, so we have to figure out how to harvest it, when to harvest it,” Kuschner said. “The engineering problem with putting large algae farms in the open water is very difficult because we don’t have that kind of engineering expertise here. It would certainly be a very sustainable fuel source, whether it could replace fossil fuels I don’t know, but it’s a very promising fuel source.”

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