The Biology Building at the University of Texas at Austin houses one of the University’s most exceptional collections. Not books or art or dinosaurs. This is the Algae Culture Collection.
Think of it as a living library. Shelves line the walls stacked with beakers, each a different shade of green. The hallways are lined with green jars, each of them containing a different strain of algae, around 3,000 in all.
It’s not a quiet place. Machines shake beakers in the corners to aerate the algae. AC units hum to keep samples at the right temperature. On a recent tour of the collection, Dr. Jerry Brand, the director of the Center, held up a sample of his favorite algae.
“Each of these little balls contains 512 cells. And they just swirl and tumble like [they're] dancing on a dance floor,” he said. It’s easy to think of each little jar as a world unto itself. But these small organisms could one day bring major benefits to life outside the university walls.
“People see algae as pond scum. We see algae as fuel, cures for cancer nutricuticals, sources of chemicals that are greener than we’ve ever had before,” said Dr. Robert Hebner, director of the school’s Center for Electromechanics.
Hebner is at the forefront of algae research. His interest began about five years ago when a colleague pointed out the challenge of extracting naturally occurring oils from algae.
“I went to my white board and I started writing down some circuit to do this,” he remembers.
Today, the fruits of those early ideas are visible at Hebner’s lab at the UT Pickle Research Center. That’s where a huge algae process device separates algae from oil. It’s an ongoing experiment into the green stuff’s potential as a biofuel.
Last summer, Hebner brought the device to a sewage treatment plant outside of Austin, where he produced biofuel from the naturally occurring algae there. That sums up the promise: Algae takes what we generally think of as waste — be it sewage, C02 emissions or, fertilizer runoff — and uses it to grow.
“The US Air Force even had an ambitious plan to flow the Mississippi River through an algae plant so you don’t create the dead zone in the gulf of Mexico,” said Hebner.
Although that never got past the proposal stage, entrepreneurs are looking for ways to make some greenbacks out of that green slime. Hoyt Thomas is with Open Algae, a group trying to commercialize the device in Hebner’s Lab.
“We see ourselves as being an equipment supplier to growers, and it’s very similar to what you might see in the oil patch. With companies like Schlumberger and Halliburton, where they’re supplying services to the oil patch. We see ourselves as a service provider to the growers,” said Thomas.
Harvesting algae is already profitable at a small scale. Things like Omega fatty acids and food supplements are extracted using the technique. But when it comes to biofuel applications, the technology has a long way to go. UT’s Hebner says it would take a plot of algae about the size of Iowa to provide for U.S. fuel needs. But, he points out, advances in research are coming quickly.