Two teams, racing against the clock. A long-standing rivalry that up til now has been played on the football field. And at the end, the prize: gooey, stinky algae.
While the University of Texas and Texas A&M University football teams no longer play each other after A&M left the Big 12 conference for the SEC (beginning their membership with a loss to Florida last Saturday), there is a new rivalry between the two campuses: who can make algae into a commercially-viable fuel fastest.
The specifics are well over our pay grade, involving words like microfluidic and B. Braunii. But suffice to say that the idea behind all this research is to create a fuel from algae that can be used in combustion engines.
And at A&M they’re aiming to do the same.
A new report by Texas A&M Agrilife Today says that a team at the university may be within four years of a commercially-viable, fuel-grade algae oil.
“The team, with a combined expertise from agriculture to engineering, has received a $2 million National Science Foundation grant to help hasten the process,” Agrilife Today writes.
One of the collaborators on the project is Dr. Tim Devarenne, a Texas A&M AgriLife Research biochemist and collaborator on the project. He says that one benefit of algae isn’t just that it’s renewable, but also that it’s much less carbon intensive. “If we harvest algae and process them into fuels, we don’t emit any excess carbon into the atmosphere that is currently being emitted from petroleum fossil fuels,” he tells Agrilife Today.
If all goes well, the A&M team could partner with industry to make algae fuel commercially viable.
“If we can produce an alga that produces high amounts of oil and grows fast,” Devarenne says, “an industry partner could grow large amounts of it, extract the oil, convert that oil into gasoline or diesel fuel and sell it just like at a normal gasoline pump.”
Algae can be grown using municipal wastewater, Devarenne says, or by using emissions from coal power plants. That means that carbon dioxide used to make algae fuel would come from existing carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. The UT team has already produced biofuels from a sewage treatment plant outside of Austin.
And a recent study by UT found that it’s possible algae could produce 500 times more energy than it takes to grow. Oil and gas, by comparison, create 30 to 40 times as much energy as it takes to produce (i.e. drill) them, making algae potentially much more efficient to produce.
“Algae take CO2 out of the atmosphere to make the oil and then when we burn the oil as fuel, we just put that CO2 back into the atmosphere,” Devarenne tells Agrilife Today. “That is different from petroleum because the CO2 from petroleum has been stored underground for hundreds of millions of years and then we release that into the atmosphere when we burn fuels created from petroleum.”