Tech Tuesday

Advances in Bioenergy

Getting plants to produce more hydrocarbons and news on the animal waste to biofuel front.

There's a lot more attention being paid these days to plants and algae as a source of renewable hydrocarbons that could replace petroleum-based hydrocarbons. A new $2 million research program at Iowa State University, funded by a National Science Foundation Grant, aims to look much more closely at this issue.

Researchers know that plants capture solar energy and create compounds identical to petroleum, but little is known about the exact structures, mechanisms, genetics or metabolism of that conversion. The four-year grant will study the production of biological hydrocarbons. The work will focus on a way to isolate and bioengineer a catalyst that creates biological hydrocarbons. This work could lead to technologies that change how liquid fuels are produced.

Currently, plant science is in the very earliest stages of working on ways to turn everything from cellulose to algae into fuel. This latest work, if successful, would unlock a totally different stream of renewable energy building blocks. The resulting products could be "renewable hydrocarbons" that could integrate directly into the existing fossil-carbon infrastructure - and that would be a significant advancement.

Turning Algae to Energy. Meanwhile, the folks at Sandia National Laboratories are cultivating green algae that holds the promise as a new supply of biofuel. This isn't the only algae-to-fuel project going on these days; in fact there's a company in Minnesota that has developed a process to create biodiesel from algae.

However, the Sandia work holds promise because it not only looks on algae as a biofuel source, but it sees dairy effluent as a valuable resource in that process too. The Sandia researchers recently grew green algae in a 12-by-30-foot greenhouse using a simulated dairy effluent - which is a nutrient rich fluid remaining after bacterial digestion of dairy manure. The solids from the process can be used to develop fertilizer and feed while the liquid could be a nutrient source for the algae.

In this process, the algae are cultured for several days, followed by harvesting and dewatering, after which the algal oil is extracted. That algae can produce lipids, the most useful being neutral oil that can be converted to biofuels. The researchers note that algae ponds can be put on marginal land using non-fresh brackish water or nutrient-loaded waste water from municipal and ag sources. These ponds can be put on barren land, and the Southwest has plenty of that. This could be a significant source of algae growth for biofuels in the future.

The good news from this research is that algae grown using dairy effluent produces a biofuel, adding value to what to many is a waste product. Manure become a fuel source through algae fertilization offers significant promise for the future.

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