Fueling hope in algae
Turning algae into fuel isn’t exactly a new idea.
In the 1970s, the federal government funded the Aquatic Species Program, which looked into how algae oil could be tapped for transportation fuel. Funding was cut in 1996 when cheaper types of biomass, such as corn, became standard.
Now, with the country’s renewed interest in domestic fuel choices, scientists such as Keesoo Lee at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., are taking a fresh look at algae.
“Only thing that I can say is, it really does have one of the biggest potentials so far,” Lee said. Lee stands in a repurposed greenhouse attached to the back of her lab. Several tanks of algae and water sit in one row in front of her.
Lincoln University researchers, along with a team of undergraduate students, collected algae from Missouri waterways. Over three years, they isolated the type that grows best outdoors in this region, an important first step in a long process.
Lee feels the pressure for an immediate cost-effective solution.
“Do you know how long we’ve been growing soybean? Two hundred years, I guess. It took that long to be an expert in soybean, now we are asking algae people to be an expert within 10 years…that’s a little too pushy,” she said.
Dig a little deeper
Lee’s project is well funded with a $527,000 grant from the Missouri Life Sciences Research Board. It is a collaborative effort that also involves a coal-fired power plant in Chamois, Mo., and the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
In Lee’s lab, algae and water sit in old fish tanks. The surface rumbles as the gas is pumped in.
“If we can grow algae here, then we thought we could grow algae at the power plant,” Lee said.
Right next to the six-story Central Electric Power Cooperative plant in Chamois, Lee’s team installed five kiddie pools and filled them with bubbling algae.
Carbon dioxide billows out of the top of the plant’s steel chimney, and a small retrofitted pipe sips the pollutant and brings it down to the pools. Algae need carbon dioxide to survive. The idea is that fields of algae pools could be used at power plants to trap carbon dioxide. It doesn’t eliminate the CO2 — just delays its release. More recycling, than sequestering.
“If this would ever take off, it would take about 75 acres of pools to consume the flue gas — the CO2 — that we produce here at the power plant,” said Tim Backes, manager of the Chamois plant. “So, it is small scale, but I guess all experiments start out that way.”
On a large scale, a plant like this one could keep enough algae to recycle plant emissions and provide significant enough oil to produce a transportation fuel.
Soybeans, a traditional biomass, yield about 60 gallons of oil per acre per year. Al Darzins with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates algae’s yield would be much higher.
“There were some people out there a couple years ago, that were saying, algae can produce a 100,000 gallons per acre per year,” he said. “Something that is more realistic is anywhere from 1,000 to maybe a couple thousand, three, four, five…6,000 gallons per acre per year ultimately, but we’re not there yet.”
Right now, extracting oil, and ultimately fuel from watery algae is so expensive it is seen as a risky investment. Still, scientists like Darzins say algae may one day satisfy a need for more oil, more fuel, more energy…cheaply.
“It’s going to take a combination of two things. Getting some fundamentals down from the biological side as well as developing some engineering breakthroughs that allow us to harvest and break open these cells in a very, very cost-effective way,” Darzins said.
That’s where the final piece of this research project fits in. At the Missouri University of Science and Technology, enough oil is being extracted from algae to fill eyedropper vials one at a time. Paul Nam is a professor at the university in Rolla, and he’s working to crack the oil from algae puzzle. Currently, he’s working on a method to remove water from algae, and then oil from algae without spending too much money in the process.
Beyond the lab, Congress is considering a bill that would extend a biofuel tax credit to algae that would deduct a dollar for every gallon of algae-based fuel produced.