Algae discussed as food, fuel source at Regional Bioscience Conference
WORTHINGTON -- One engineer sees algae as a future biofuel, and one entrepreneur sees algae as a future pharmaceutical and food source. Both were speakers Friday afternoon during the final session at the Regional Bioscience Conference in Worthington.
Daniel Geller serves as faculty engineer at the University of Georgia, where he takes basic science and tries to "make it happen" in the real world, he told conference attendees. While he works with a wide variety of cellulosic materials, he focused his presentation on work he is doing to breakdown eukaryotic algae for use as a biofuel.
Geller said algae has some real potential as a biofuel, but it comes with many challenges -- the greatest of which is breaking down the cell wall of the miniscule aquatic organism to access the oil found inside.
"It costs a lot of money to break down," Geller said, adding that of the hundreds of thousands of algae species, only a portion grow the chemicals needed for the biofuel industry.
"If we're going to make this work, we have to look at it like petroleum companies do, extracting the most valuable stuff first and everything leftover can be used for fuel."
One of the most appealing attributes of algae for use in biofuel production is its rapid growth rate. Geller said one acre of algae can produce up to 20,000 gallons of oil per acre per year. That compares to Midwestern soybean fields that produce about 100 gallons of oil per acre per year.
The science behind algae use for biofuels isn't new. Researchers first began looking at it in the 1970s through an aquatic species program that sought out material containing high levels of oil. The research stopped during the 1980s and 1990s because of the drop in fuel prices, and reignited in the late 1990s.
While Geller said the opportunity to replace foreign oil with biofuel is gaining momentum, every time they solve one engineering challenge, five others are created.
"Growth, harvest, extraction and conversion are all problems, and each stage adds money to the process," he said. "That's a concern."
The most expensive step is removing water from the algae, Geller explained, adding that filters get clogged with the material and boiling the water out would be "tremendously expensive." Adding artificial structures such as plastic, to which algae can adhere, shows the most promise at this time.
Fuel is already being made from algae, but at a cost of approximately $100 per gallon, much work is needed to bring the price to a more affordable level. At this time, the military is purchasing the biofuel for use in its jets and boats. It has the most interest because of their need for fuel in remote areas.
"The people protecting our oil are going to be the first people to use this oil," summed up Geller.
Tom Byrne, of Byrne & Co. Limited, Preston, presented a different approach to utilizing algae. His company takes technology and tries to make it work in the "real world."
Already working to convert waste to energy, Byrne said his company is now trying to grow algae cheap enough so it can be commercialized. Algae, he said, requires six things to grow --water, proper temperatures, carbon dioxide, nutrient mix, pH and photosynthetic active radiation.
With an operation south of Mexicali, Mexico, Byrne said micro algae is being grown at a cost of about $10 per gallon. He hopes to bring that cost down to $4 per gallon eventually.
"We're hitting animal feeds mostly with our system," Byrne said, adding that the algae product they're making is used as fish feed in aquaculture farms. Other uses include food supplements and pharmaceuticals.
The private sector has invested $2-3 billion in algae research in the last six years.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.