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Algae potential to produce biodiesel

Microalgae has the potential to produce more biofuel per acre than any other potential source, according to Texas AgriLife research scientists.

Most of the technology necessary to grow and harvest algae already exists, says Ron Lacey, professor in Biological and Agricultural Engineering. “We just need to adapt the equipment and make the process less costly,” Lacey said last summer during a bioenergy media day at College Station.

“We’re working on growth and harvest and how to produce large scale in the field,” he said.

The efforts are boosted by a recent $4 million grant from the Governor’s Emerging Technology Fund and a matching $4 million from the U.S. Department of Defense. Texas A&M also has entered into a partnership with General Atomics, a San Diego high-technology company.

On Jan. 13, Secretary of Energy Chu announced funding for a $44 million algae development consortia and the Texas AgriLife Research team is a significant part of this consortium. “The intent of the consortium is to advance the science of algae production to an economically viable, commercial scale enterprise that can produce billions of gallons of fuel without competing with food and feed production.” said Bob Avant, Bioenergy director. “We are very excited about this opportunity to commercialize a technology that could be economically important to Texas and the Southwest,” he said.

A significant chunk of the grants will be used to develop a research and development facility at Pecos, Texas. Scientists will conduct research at other Texas locations as well, including College Station, Lubbock, San Angelo, Corpus Christi, and Galveston. Ultimately, researchers envision potential for 2,000-acre production systems for the Permian Basin of Texas and other areas throughout the Southwest. A 2,000-acre facility could mean as much as $190 million in annual economic benefit to local communities.

Early efforts will include demonstration systems with ponds up to a quarter acre in size. Early research should lead to scaled-up versions and ultimately to a commercial-sized facility of 50 to 100 acres.

Research will evaluate algal species with high production capacity and develop a small aquaculture laboratory. They also will work on monitoring systems for rapid testing and “optimizing environmental conditions for microalgal growth and oil production.

“Our challenge is to modify existing technologies,” Lacey said.

The potential is significant. Algae can provide the basis for either biodiesel or jet fuel (thus the Department of Defense interest). “Algae can produce more than 100 times as much biofuel per acre as soybeans,” Lacey said.

Palm produces about 500 gallon per acre, castor 130 gallons, canola 115, sunflower 90, and soy about 60.

Lacey said researchers are working with a sensor to monitor algae conditions and production in test ponds. “We need accurate information on water quality and other traits. Without sensing we can’t optimize the system. It works beautifully,” he said.

Lacey said producing biofuels from algae is a “high risk, high reward” endeavor. “We think the potential is 2,500 to 5,000 gallons of biodiesel or jet fuel per acre per year. Algae could be very competitive. It’s still a long process but we now have a commitment for a long-term investment.”

The need is also significant. Researchers pointed out that diesel and jet fuel are critical to the country’s economy and defense. Recent mandates also require that the military must get 20 percent of its fuel from renewable sources by 2020.

Texas AgriLife researchers said the state could become a leader in supplying “a clean, renewable, domestic source of fuel.” The state and nation would realize both security and economic benefits from the efforts.

Some areas of Texas and the Southwest are ideally suited for algae growth since algae needs large amounts of sunlight, brackish water and carbon dioxide. Those conditions are typical in the Texas Permian Basin as well as along the Texas Gulf Coast.

As many as 30 Texas AgriLife researchers are working on the algae-to-fuel project. “We’re working across multiple disciplines,” Lacey said.

He said the effort to make the country less dependent on foreign fuel sources follows the same logic of producing our own food. “Any country that cannot feed itself is vulnerable."

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