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Energy Efficiency

Colorado State Research Improves Algae for Biofuel

Jay Skyler

The creation of fossil fuels is a multi-million-year process. Breaking down organic matter into coal, oil, and natural gas is not sustainable. Despite the rise of renewable energy like wind and solar power, the world is not prepared to leave behind the oil and natural gas that powers most of its transportation.

In early August, the US Department of Energy awarded a team of engineers at Colorado State University a grant for $3.2 million for research into algae biofuels.

Their goal is to boost the biomass production of algae by 20% in order to help make algae-based biofuels industrially viable. While other biofuels like corn and sugarcane-based ethanol have been around for a while, Professor Ken Reardon, the leader of the project at CSU, speaks very highly of the emergence and potential of algae-based biofuels. “Algae have great potential as a source of biomass for producing biofuels and many other chemicals,” Reardon says. “They grow much faster than plants, don’t require high quality soil, and all of the algal cell can be used to make products.”

Photo Courtesy Jordan Whitfield

Along with the ease of growing algae, it’s an eco-friendly fuel source. The process of cultivating algae biofuel is dependent on carbon dioxide to grow, making it carbon neutral. In addition, cultivating algal biofuels is more efficient than the cultivation of traditional biofuels. Using one acre of land, algae produce 80 times more oil than corn or sugarcane, making it one of the highest energy capacities of all bio-combustibles. 

Fortunately, the Colorado State project has already shown early signs of success.

Professor Reardon has stated that as a result of the DOE’s funding, they have developed a strain that enables the algae to grow more quickly in higher dissolved CO2 and more efficiently transfer CO2 to the algae ponds. Together, these components can lead to more productive algae growth rates.

However, they are still optimistic about further developments. “The new funding will allow us to use these results in combination with other novel ideas to make another large advance in the rate at which algae can be produced from an algae farm,” Reardon said.

The success of Reardon’s project at CSU, coupled with its subsequent expansion, would allow algae biofuel to be implemented at a market-wide scale. Adding this fuel into the energy mix is vital considering transportation currently accounts for around 30% of the total energy consumption in the United States as well as generating the largest share of the US carbon emissions. They will also help the US meet the emissions goals set by the Biden administration of cutting 65% of US greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 and becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

Photo Courtesy Lance Lozano

The Colorado State project is just one of many alternative fuel programs that the Department of Energy is funding. So far, the DOE has given $34 Million to eleven different organizations for research in the development of biofuels. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm has spoken favorably about these grants, saying, “The companies and universities leading these projects will ensure that our cutting-edge biofuel technologies reduce carbon emissions, create new jobs up and down the supply chain, and are made in America by American workers.”

Algae biofuels are still a ways away from being market-ready. Still, Reardon and his team understand these projects can make a world of difference. “Solutions toward the interconnected challenges of food, energy, and water production are increasingly becoming critical for our planet in the face of climate change,” Reardon said. “Algae could be one of the solutions to those challenges, but we still have a lot to learn about how to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of making fuels and chemicals from algae. We’re confident this project will help the field take a big step forward.”