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Stocks of green algae that produce oil for biodiesel production. (Photo Credit: University of Arizona)

University of Arizona leads USD 8 million algae research effort

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Friday, October 11, 2013, 23:00 (GMT + 9)

Can algae farming really supplant oil and gas drilling over time? That's the big question the University of Arizona's Kimberly Ogden, chemical and environmental engineering professor, has been asking of simple algae, the green stuff with the right stuff to potentially fuel the future.

Ogden is not alone in the quest to mass-produce a bio-oil to reduce dependence on petroleum and its many environmentally unfriendly byproducts. The challenge is to find a substance capable of becoming fuel for transportation, feed for animals, fertilizer and high-value products such as bioplastics or pharmaceuticals. Ogden is focused on determining the efficacy of one source in particular: algae.

The UA is the lead institution for the Regional Algal Feedstock Testbed (RAFT) partnership, which was recently awarded USD 8 million over four years by the US Department of Energy (DOE) to research how algae can be grown year-round outdoors in open ponds in different climates. In addition, other researchers and companies will collaborate with the research team to develop harvesting and conversion processes to produce biofuels and bioproducts.

Ogden and RAFT researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, New Mexico State University and Texas A&M AgriLife are optimizing algal growth systems to yield more biomass and lipids, developing methods of recycling and reusing water, and experimenting with methodologies for growing various algae strains.

The majority of the research will be done using UA's Algal Raceway Integrated Design (ARID) system, which was designed and patented by Ogden's research partners Randy Ryan, of the Arizona Agricultural Experiment Station, part of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Pete Waller and Murat Kacira, of the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering; and Perry Li, of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. The research team also includes Judy Brown, a professor in the UA School of Plant Sciences.

"Right now the process is pretty labour intensive," Ogden admits. "But part of the goal of this grant is to better understand the relationships between flow rate, nutrients, pH, temperature and algal productivity so we can optimize system performance and have an automated system."

"To tackle the problem of large-scale production of algae for fuels and other products, we need to have a better understanding of everything from the biology to the interfacing with existing petroleum processing plants," Ogden added.

The UA's contribution to this project focuses on water usage and quality issues, plant biology, reactor design and the production of various algae strains for advanced testing.

"The really big picture of this whole project is to determine how much oil we can get from algae over time. We need to see how feasible it is to run the ARID raceways 24/7 outdoors under different conditions," Ogden said. Her team will compare the ARID reactor design with others to find the system that uses the least amount of energy to obtain the highest productivity in four different areas of the country: Tucson, Ariz.; Pecos, Texas; Las Cruces, N.M., and the Pacific Northwest.

By growing algae in its patented raceways, UA will be able to sustain growth year-round in temperature-controlled environments.


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