Drivers can't pump algal fuel into their gas tanks yet, but Keith Cooksey said the idea holds promise. He felt that way 20 years ago. He feels that way today.
"We would be there now if people then hadn't been so short-sighted," Cooksey said.
Cooksey is one of many U.S. scientists who studied the feasibility of turning algal oil into biodiesel in the 1980s. The U.S. Department of Energy, through its Aquatics Species program, funded their research. Cooksey's lab made a number of discoveries. Scientific journals published his findings.
Funding dried up, however, and the scientists went on to other things.
"Rumor had it that big oil got in the way," Cooksey said. "They didn't want competition so the project was dropped."
Cooksey "sort of" retired as a research professor in 2003. He now directs the Department of Defense's EPSCoR program for Montana. A few months ago, however, Cooksey started getting phone calls and e-mails from researchers and others who read about his algal work on the Internet or had seen it referenced in scientific journals. Companies tried to hire him as a consultant. He was invited to attend conferences. He ran into several scientists who had been his friendly competitors in the old days. They all said, "If only."
"It's a very strange feeling," said Cooksey, now 72. "You don't usually have people bending your ear on what you did 20 years ago. Science doesn't work that way, but in this case, it did."
The revived interest in microalgae stems from the conflict in the Middle East and the resulting focus on alternative fuels, Cooksey said.
"Our lab was one of three or four in the world doing research that nobody was really interested in," Cooksey said. "Now, suddenly lots of people are interested in it."
Still interested in pursuing algal fuel, Cooksey said his lab in the 1980s figured out how to increase oil production from algae. It developed a system that screened algae for their oil content and greatly reduced the sample size needed for their research. It developed a stain for algae, called Nile Red. When treated with the stain, the algae became fluorescent under certain conditions, making it easier to measure their oil content.
Algae grow naturally along rivers, the seashore, and in the mangrove swamps of southern Florida, Cooksey said. They also grow in wastewater treatment ponds and can be grown commercially in manmade ponds. One design that was tested in the 1980s is a shallow pond that looks like a raceway. Another is a system of deeper ponds. Algae can be grown especially well in desert states that have plenty of sunshine and access to water unusable for traditional agriculture or drinking. Because of its salt content, salt water is more economical than fresh water for growing algae, so southwestern states with saline aquifers might find it easy to grow them.
"In principle, lipids from microalgae are suitable for refining into conventional liquid fuels," said a 1983 annual report from the Solar Energy Research Institute that provided Cooksey's funding and some algal cultures. "Indeed, in the past, biological oils have been refined to fuels during shortages in petroleum supply."
Joseph LaStella, president of Green Star Products, Inc. in San Diego, Calif., raved about the potential of algae in a recent phone call. His company built a demonstration pond in Hamilton, Mont., last spring.
Soybeans produce about 50 gallons of oil per acre per year, and canola produces about 130, he said. Algae, however, produces about 4,000 gallons per acre a year, and he predicted it will go far beyond that. He said algae requires only sunshine and non-drinkable water to grow. The demonstration pond showed that algae will grow even when temperatures fall below zero.
"This is the only answer to our fuel crisis," LaStella said.
David Tooke, director of operations at Sustainable Systems in Missoula, said, "With new interest in biofuels, it's another opportunity to supply those fuels.
"As far as surface area needed, it's more reasonable to assume we could attain those levels of production from algae versus agricultural crops," he continued.
Twenty years ago, algae looked promising, too, but interest died down as oil prices dropped, Tooke said. Can algal biofuel make it this time around?
"Most certainly," he predicted. "It's beginning to make sense to pursue this again."
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Evelyn Boswell | EurekAlert!
Nesting aids make agricultural fields attractive for bees
20.07.2017 | Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg
The Kitchen Sponge – Breeding Ground for Germs
20.07.2017 | Hochschule Furtwangen
Physicists have developed a new technique that uses electrical voltages to control the electron spin on a chip. The newly-developed method provides protection from spin decay, meaning that the contained information can be maintained and transmitted over comparatively large distances, as has been demonstrated by a team from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute. The results have been published in Physical Review X.
For several years, researchers have been trying to use the spin of an electron to store and transmit information. The spin of each electron is always coupled...
What is the mass of a proton? Scientists from Germany and Japan successfully did an important step towards the most exact knowledge of this fundamental constant. By means of precision measurements on a single proton, they could improve the precision by a factor of three and also correct the existing value.
To determine the mass of a single proton still more accurate – a group of physicists led by Klaus Blaum and Sven Sturm of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear...
The research team of Prof. Dr. Oliver Einsle at the University of Freiburg's Institute of Biochemistry has long been exploring the functioning of nitrogenase....
A one trillion tonne iceberg - one of the biggest ever recorded -- has calved away from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica, after a rift in the ice,...
Physics supports biology: Researchers from PTB have developed a model system to investigate friction phenomena with atomic precision
Friction: what you want from car brakes, otherwise rather a nuisance. In any case, it is useful to know as precisely as possible how friction phenomena arise –...
19.07.2017 | Event News
12.07.2017 | Event News
12.07.2017 | Event News
20.07.2017 | Information Technology
20.07.2017 | Materials Sciences
20.07.2017 | Physics and Astronomy