University researchers advance work in algae biofuels

By Will Greenberg, Daily Staff Reporter
Published August 7, 2013

A new grant from the National Science Foundation will allow University researchers to further their work in algae biofuels over the next four years.

The $2 million grant will go toward experiments to determine more efficient ways to grow algae for algae based biofuels.

Engineering Prof. Phillip Savage said the project is the next step after previous work at the University found ways to convert algae into a fuel source, similar to the conversion of crops into biofuel.

Savage said algae has many advantages over other plants in terms of fuel usage because it grows quickly, can be harvested year-round and doesn’t require crop land, as it is able to grow in brackish or clean water.

However Savage said cost is one of the main obstacles preventing biofuels from becoming a possible fuel replacement to petroleum as biofuel from algae is expected to cost around $20 per gallon.

Bradley Cardinale, associate professor of Natural Resources, who is leading the project, said the goal is to create poly-cultures of algae that will yield the highest volume of algae while also preventing the environmental damage common in producing biofuels.

Cardinale said one of the shortcomings of mass produced monoculture is that with only one species of plant being grown, the nutrients are imbalanced and harm the surrounding environment. With a polyculture, the theory is that varying plant types will work together more harmoniously, producing a larger and healthier yield.

“You might call our smaller scale ‘bio-prospecting,’ ” Cardinale said. “We’re going to use those to guide phase two of the research, where we’re going to try to get the realistic scales where a commercially viable refinery might go towards.”

He said the project will examine combinations of 55 different algae species beginning on a small scale in the lab and will then move to large scale testing at the E.S. George Reserve, a University-run biological research area near Pinckney, Mich.

The small-scale experiments will start at the University in September and will move to large-scale experiments in a year.

While polycultures are notably more environmentally friendly than mono-cultures, Cardinale said pollution and water damage remain as issues with the larger scale method. However the benefits are an immense improvement from older methods of biofuel production since they don’t require pesticides and require less fertilizer because the algae culture can recycle nutrients within itself.

“Evolution and mother nature has been really really good at selecting for highly efficient groups of species. I think we can really take advantage of nature in a way that we haven’t before.”