Nevada conducts algae-to-biofuel research project

1/26/2009 - By: Mike Wolterbeek

The first real-world, demonstration-scale project in Nevada for turning algae into biofuel has successfully completed the initial stage of research at the University of Nevada, Reno. The project is on track to show the process is an economical, commercially viable renewable energy source in Nevada.

University researchers have harvested their first outdoor cold-weather crop of algae as part of their collaborative algae-to-biofuels project with their industry partners Enegis, LLC and Bebout and Associates.

The project, using one of two 5,000-gallon ponds at the University’s greenhouse complex on Valley Road in Reno, produced several hundred gallons of concentrated algal slurry. The research has demonstrated that, with the proper technology and species of algae, it is possible to grow algae outdoors year-round in Nevada. The pond was inoculated with a “starter” culture and then the cells grow out until they reach a plateau or stationary phase, which takes two to three weeks. The algae thrived in the outdoor pond despite nighttime temperatures that fell into the low 20s.

“We’ll be analyzing the algae for starches and lipids, the components that can be used for fuel,” said Professor John Cushman, Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. A conservative estimate for this harvest is 30 percent lipids and five percent starches on a dry weight basis, less on a fresh weight basis.” The professor oversees the venture along with fellow faculty members Jeffrey Harper and David Shintani, two graduate students Leyla Hernandez-Gomez and Mark Lemos, and research associate Rebecca Albion.

The goal is to develop a hardy variety of salt-loving algae as alternative biofuel feedstock, which produces more than half its weight in oil – as well as developing a practical process to grow, concentrate and harvest the algae. The alga variety harvested was selected and cultured by the University, and future varieties will be developed by the University.

Nevada researchers and energy producers are uniquely enabled to leverage the geothermal, high solar radiation, ample land area, and salt basins to produce algae in a scalable and economically viable manner. Use of the uncovered ponds demonstrates that algae can be grown in commercial quantities year-round, even in a temperate climate. This will preclude the need for capital-intensive bioreactors or covered ponds.

The ponds were constructed with the help of industry partners Enegis, LLC and Bebout and Associates. Cushman also received grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation SunGrant Initiative.

“We believe that the methodologies and technologies being developed will result in high-quality biofuel that can compete in price per gallon with both current domestic biofuel production and imported fuels,” Dr. John W. Bebout, renewable energy expert from Savannah, Georgia and principal consultant and founder of Bebout and Associates, said.

There is a possibility for long-term financial benefits for the University from the development of the growing process and special algae strains.

“We have signed a sharing agreement with Enegis,” Cushman said. “There are possible financial benefits, especially if we file product or process patents.”

Jeffrey Eppink, president of Enegis, said, “this harvest represents the culmination of more than four years of research into developing hardy varieties of algae which produce large amounts of oil or starch as well as developing a practical process to grow, concentrate and harvest the algae.”

Cushman, his partners and students plan to begin growing another crop of algae to be ready for harvest in the early Spring.


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