From Algae to Fuel

Ashley Wioskowski

A new fuel source is emerging on the market that has proven to burn cleaner, provide economic growth, and help save ecosystems everywhere.

This new fuel source is algae.

A research team at Western Michigan University is studying how to covert algae from the Goldsworth Valley Pond on WMU’s campus to energy.

Creating biofuels from algae is not a new concept, but the process has not received as much attention as has bioethanol.

The idea to create fuel from algae emerged from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Aquatic Species Program, which was developed in 1978 during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and was discontinued during the Clinton Administration in 1996 because of a lack of funding.

It was the work of this program that caught the attention of a team of Western Michigan University professors who study biofuels and bioalcohols.

This research team has efforts currently underway to investigate just how to make fuel from algae a possibility.

“Our goal is to figure out how to take raw algae, separate the carbohydrates and lipids, and then convert it [into fuels],” said John Miller, associate professor of chemistry at WMU and research team member.

The WMU researchers built a greenhouse in August 2009 located near Goldsworth Valley Pond on WMU’s campus. The greenhouse will provide the research team with a location to collect algae from the lake and grow it until harvest.

The type of algae the team wants to grow is benthic algae. This algae will be collected in troughs and taken from Goldsworth for further examination. Benthic algae is an algae that grows on supports, like slime on rocks, said Steve Bertman, professor of chemistry at WMU and member of the team.

The research team will pump the pond water that contains algae through pipes and into troughs that have mesh surfaces to encourage the algae to grow.

“We will be pumping the water from the pond and it will seed itself, it will be happy to grow on any surface,” Miller said of the algae.

The algae will then be scraped or vacuumed and taken to the lab located in Diether H. Haenicke Hall at WMU to be separated into its two main components: lipids and carbohydrates. Miller said the algae cannot be stored because it decomposes over time.

From these components, algae can make two different types of biofuels. These are bioethanols, like the source from corn, and biobutanol, much closer to the fuel source that is already used for cars.

The typical harvest time for algae is between five to eight days. Other fuel sources, like ethanol from corn, have a harvest time of nine to -110 days. So while algae can grow all year, corn is only grown a few months out of the year. This makes algae an unlimited source for fuel.

While algae will be a cleaner alternative for the gas tank, it’s currently a nuisance to the environment where it grows.

Since algae grows off nutrients, such as fertilizer or run-off from the surrounding areas that leak into the water, it takes nitrates and phosphates out of the water. But it also consumes carbon dioxide, which can kill animal life. So algae are considered a pollutant. Bertman said it is sometimes treated with harsh chemical to remove chemicals that may be made from petroleum substances.

In addition to being a free source of potential energy, another benefit of converting algae to energy is that unlike corn, it is not used as a source of food for humans.

“Nobody eats algae, so it does not take away from the food source,” said Peter Stuurwold, a WMU graduate student and research team member.

Algae can also grow anywhere, in any climate. So Michigan may seem like a perfect setting to harvest algae for fuel with over 36,000 miles of streams and over 11,000 lakes and ponds.

But the winter months present a challenge.

“Michigan is not optimal. We have a lot of water, but not a lot of sun,” Miller said. “Michigan will never be as productive of place [as] in the south.”

Bertman added that while Michigan may not be as productive as other areas, it could still contribute to this alternative fuel source.

“It will be productive enough to grow biomass and collect nutrients,” Bertman said. “It may not make us richer, but it helps.”

By extracting oil from algae, the hopes are that oil sources can be locally produced, instead of being obtained from other countries. Bertman said that cars now on the road would not have to change to adapt to this fuel source.

One of the current challenges the research team faces is that even though algae are known to have a potential oil source, there is no efficient way to extract large quantities of oil from this source.

This is something Bertman said the team is investigating here on campus and in Muskegon.

While the future of biofuels is unclear, Bertman said algae may someday be developed to be a locally-made source, but the process that will make this happen, is still a work in progress.

“We’re trying to help develop sources for liquid reusable fuel,” Bertman said. “Is that a long term solution? Who knows? But to that extent, we can replace petroleum for a more sustainable solution.”