Cushman, Harper Teaming up to Produce Fuel from Algae

Post-doc Sage Hibel preparing to transfer algae solution to larger outdoor race track.Nevada's scientists are looking ahead to the future of fuels. Although fossil petroleum dominates the nation's transportation industries today, the finite resource will only reign for a limited time. That's where John Cushman and Jeff Harper come in.

"When you think about it, much of our food is trucked in on 18-wheelers, and they burn diesel," Cushman said. "They could be burning biodiesel produced within the state."

The two professors of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at University of Nevada, Reno are researching algae and hoping to combine energy production with water reclamation.

Because Nevada is home to many salt basins, the CABNR researchers first focused on halophytic algae - single-celled organisms that thrive in briny water. After realizing these algae were less productive than they had hoped, the researchers transitioned to a different and ever-present water resource: wastewater.

"We spend money processing wastewater already," Cushman said. "Sage Hiibel, a postdoctoral scholar in our lab, has now isolated at least 40 algae isolates that can be grown on diluted to fully concentrated wastewater. They remove the nitrates and phosphates very efficiently and that helps the reclamation process."

Cushman said that Nevada currently pays millions of dollars each year for water reclamation. If these algae prove productive, they could be used to both help reclaim wastewater and produce high-energy liquid transportation fuels. Cushman has since joined forces with Mae Gustin in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science within CABNR to evaluate heavy metal removal and Eric Marchand in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to test nutrient removal. The interdisciplinary team also works with Barbara Zielinska and Vera Samburova within the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at the Desert Research Institute to assess the lipid production of the algae isolates.

"If we can put a loop on the wastewater treatment process, to grow algae and produce a bio-fuel product, then society would benefit enormously," he said. "It makes a lot of sense economically when you think of the money we currently have to pay. There's no alternative. We are required by law to process wastewater in an environmentally sound way, so why not produce useful byproducts while we are at it?"

Although Nevada is an epicenter for geothermal and solar energy research and development, the general focus has always been electricity production. Cushman believes Nevadans could benefit by incorporating algae-fuel research and diversifying into to high-energy liquid fuel production.

Initial culture of algae that is used to seed larger colonies."The need for liquid transport fuels is not going to go away any time soon," Cushman said. "There's no easy substitute for energy-dense liquid transportation fuels. If you think about the trucking industry and the aviation industry, those industries are locked into liquid fuels. What we can do is diversify our renewable energy portfolio to produce these fuels and stimulate the local economy."

Nevada's existing wastewater resources, combined with its abundant solar and geothermal resources, make it a great place to grow algae-based fuels. Cushman said the state could be an important player in the process.

Although the science is sound, Cushman said the nation still needs some convincing that biofuels are the way to go. This will prove difficult for now, because the United States currently imports an abundance of cheap, subsidized fossil fuels.

"The limitation to our adoption of biofuels is purely economic; it's not going to happen as long as fossil petroleum remains inexpensive," Cushman said. "We cannot compete. We can make algae oil, but it will not become economically viable until the price of fossil petroleum goes up significantly."