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US scientists look to turn algae into biofuel

February 05, 2013
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Researchers at the University of Toledo, Ohio, are looking into ways to turn the abundant toxic algae in Lake Erie into fuel, hoping to develop a sustainable method for cleaning the water in the lake and producing energy. Their project has been supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, which have funded the research with a combined grant worth $4 million, the university announced on its website.

Biochemists Sridhar Viamajala and Sasidhar Varanasi, who are in charge of the project, are examining ways to turn the fertilizers and sewage that spill into Lake Erie into energy, thus helping to reduce the negative impact of algae on wildlife and tourism. For their study, the researchers, accompanied by Kana Yamamoto, an assistant professor of chemistry at the university, are going to take the sewage and manure that pollute the water, and that create the perfect conditions for toxic algae to bloom, and are going to use them to help grow algae that can be refined into biodiesel fuel. The reason why algae are at the focus of research is the fact that 50 percent of their structure is made up of lipids, or vegetable oils, which can be converted into biodiesel. Even though the basic process of converting algae to biofuel is already known, the researchers believe that they are still a few years away from developing an economically viable process.

RELATED: Wastewater treatment system to use algae for energy

In total, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent over $115 million on research into algae biofuel across the country. In 2010 alone, some $17 million was allocated to projects intended to keep phosphorus and nitrogen from washing off farm fields, because these two nutrients are key for feeding algae.

Recovering those nutrients from water could prove cost-effective and ecologically friendly and that is why finding a way to grow algae from wastewater is an attractive opportunity. Biofuels from various food crops like corn and soybeans have already been created but, according to Viamajala, algae is better than food crops in several aspects. First of all, they do not need space to grow that could otherwise be used for growing produce. Moreover, algae do not require clean water to grow, which allows the use of wastewater. Last but not least, the structure of algae is simpler than that of corn or soybeans, they grow faster and are more productive.

In recent years, the amount of algae growing in Lake Erie has increased dramatically but the reasons for this are unclear. A possible explanation for their boom is the fact that nutrients are washed off from land into the lake by rain.

Meanwhile, algae research has also been funded by other agencies, such as Ohio's Third Frontier science and technology grant program and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The U.S. military is also examining possible use of biofuels instead of conventional fuel sources for Navy ships and algae may prove a viable solution, the University of Toledo website stated.

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