Squishy, blue-green, wet, growing algae — what usually is thought of as fish food — potentially is a key to some of the energy and fuel sustainability challenges facing society.
With the help of MSU researchers, algal biofuel research might be used to produce vegetable oils that can be transformed into clean transportation biofuels. Algae also can be used to help clean up carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, such as the MSU Power Plant.
Continued from the print edition of The State News:
This summer, MSU researchers will embark on a $150,000 project collaborating with PHYCO2, a California-based algae and carbon dioxide sequestration company, to test an algae reactor machine in the MSU Power Plant. MSU’s portion of the project is funded by MSU without external grants, MSU Director of Utilities Robert Ellerhorst said.
The process will involve recycling carbon dioxide gases from the plant’s chimney so the algae can produce vegetable oil, which then is put back into the plant as a biofuel, said assistant professor in the biosystems and agricultural engineering department Wei Liao, a researcher working on the project.
The plan only is in its preliminary design stages, he said.
This project is a part of MSU’s Energy Transition Plan, Ellerhorst said. He said the testing could last 12 to 18 months, during which time researchers will collect data.
“It is a known science that when algae grows through photosynthesis, it absorbs CO2 (in warm temperatures) — that’s not new,” Ellerhorst said. “The project is trying to bring that into northern climates where it is not warm all the time, and use alternative light to generate the same thing.”
Although researchers said algal biofuels are an energy-efficient way to produce transportation fuels and have many other environmental advantages, biochemistry and molecular biology professor Christoph Benning said right now, algal biofuels are not economically feasible.
This is a hurdle Benning and student assistants in his lab are trying overcome.
“We cannot make vegetable oil in algae (in) the same inexpensive way that we can do it in plants, and that’s one handicap,” he said. “Whenever you make biofuels, it has to be cost effective and it has to make money.”
He said this research has the potential to impact society — giving many students the opportunity to be involved in a scientific movement they are very excited about.
Plant biology and molecular genetics and genomics junior Cynthia Amstutz said she’s happy to work on a project that hits so close to home.
“Everyone needs to commute places, everyone needs to pay the gas prices, so it’s not just affecting one group of people — it’s affecting everybody,” she said.
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