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Making waves in biofuels

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By Roger Snodgrass

In the growing catalog of renewable energy options, biofuels have shown promise and provoked consternation with fluctuating prospects in recent years.

Producers of first generation biofuels from food crops trampled rainforests in Brazil and spiked cornfield real estate speculation in the American Midwest.

A second generation has found a more sustainable and less disruptive approach by extracting energy from indigestible cellulosic fibre in non-food plants and trees.

One of the most promising candidates for a biofuel source turns out to be scum. Otherwise known as algae, the green microorganisms that flourish in ponds are relatively rich in lipids, which are plant-like equivalents of fats and oils.

“Algae has the benefit of being better at sequestering carbon of any cellulose producer that we’ve found so far,” said Greg Goddard, a LANL bioscientist, who is adapting an acoustic focusing technology developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory to concentrate and manipulate algae cells for droplets of vegetable oil.

The lab is working under a cooperative research and development agreement with Solix Biofuels, Inc., a Colorado-based alternative energy production firm with one of the most advanced industrial production systems for creating biofuels.

At the company’s newly opened Coyote Gulch Demonstration Facility, built on tribal land in partnership with the Southern Ute Indians Reservation in southwestern Colorado, Solix expects to produce 5,000 to 8,000 gallons of algal oil per acre, per year, although their company literature puts current yield at something more than 2,000 gallons per acre, per year.

Goddard said the lab’s sound wave technology, used to analyze human cells, has been adapted not only to concentrate the algae, but also to break open and release the internal lipids and then to separate and clean up the unused parts.

The plan is to deploy the technology to Coyote Gulch to increase production by the end of the year.

There are still many ways to redouble the effectiveness of the process, including increasing the quantity of lipids per cell. Researchers are working on genetic optimization and lighting schemes to speed growth and lipid production in the algae.

There are also a number of alternatives to explore for what kinds of motors will run best on algal biofuel.

“It works in regular diesel engines,” said Goddard, “but can we get it to work better in other ways?”

Recently DOE announced another in a series of high-priority, energy-related research projects that will make $50 million available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act expressly for algal biofuels research and development.

Goddard and Solix are currently working with a broad consortium that includes national laboratories, utility companies, universities and others on a program to develop synergistic advances in the entire program.

“We’re trying to come up with the technology to make it truly competitive with gas,” Goddard said. “My hopes are in it.”