Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Algae’s energy potential blooms

KU researchers seeing green in alternative biofuel project

Val Smith, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Kansas University, and Judy Regnier, plant manager at the Lawrence Wastewater Treatment Plant, survey bioreactors on Thursday. Smith and KU researchers are working to turn algae, grown in the bioreactors filled with treated wastewater, into biofuel.

Val Smith, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Kansas University, and Judy Regnier, plant manager at the Lawrence Wastewater Treatment Plant, survey bioreactors on Thursday. Smith and KU researchers are working to turn algae, grown in the bioreactors filled with treated wastewater, into biofuel.

November 9, 2009


KU researchers working toward greener fuel

Researchers at Kansas University are working to extract oils from algae in hopes of producing a reliable, efficient and environmentally-friendly fuel source. The process is relatively simple and relatively inexpensive. Enlarge video

Kansas University researchers are working to turn microbes from treated sewage into a commercially viable biofuel, fluid that one day could be used to power the nation’s cars, trucks, airplanes and other modes of transportation.

But for now, the future grows in four farm tanks at Lawrence’s Wastewater Treatment Plant, and inside another four at a research station northeast of the Lawrence Municipal Airport.

The project is unmistakably green, a shade that can be produced only by millions of cells of algae — fattened up with treated waste from the city’s sewer system, then harvested after absorbing organic pollutants and yielding oil for transformation into clean-burning biodiesel.

“From the point of view of the EPA, this should be like heaven,” said Val Smith, a KU professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “We’re harnessing a waste, making it do work for America, and purifying it all at the same time.

“It’s like a win-win-win-win-win.”

The effort is among those worldwide looking to tap into a global thirst for alternative fuels. The U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. military and a lengthening roster of commercial enterprises are among those investing in the promise and potential of algae-to-fuel efforts.

Earlier this year, none other than petroleum giant ExxonMobil announced it would pump more than $600 million into research and development of biofuels generated from the floating vegetation.

“Meeting the world’s growing energy demands will require a multitude of technologies and energy sources,” said Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co. “We believe that biofuel produced by algae could be a meaningful part of the solution.”

The KU effort is being financed by the university’s Transportation Research Institute, using money from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Nearing a breakthrough

Bob Honea, the institute’s director, is confident that the work of KU researchers — collaborating on a “Feedstock to Tailpipe” program that includes a wide variety of biofuel efforts — is on the right track. Gasoline prices eventually will return to $4 a gallon or more, he said, and the world will continue to seek ways to lessen a reliance on petroleum.

Using algae to make biodiesel simply makes sense, Honea said, given the aquatic organisms’ built-in advantages compared with traditional crops: higher yields on less land.

By feeding algae with essentially free inputs — treated effluent from the city’s sewage-treatment plant — KU researchers, he said, just may be tapping into a system that one day could be considered commercially viable, environmentally desirable and eminently repeatable.

“We are on the cusp on what I would call a major breakthrough,” Honea said.

For now, Smith and other researchers are working on the foundation for such a system: the algae itself. Since June, Smith has been seeding the project’s fiberglass farm tanks with algae, and ensuring that the tiny organisms get plenty of effluent from the city’s sewage system.

The plant pumps out about 9 million gallons of effluent each day, so sparing a few hundred gallons for KU research is no problem, said Judy Regnier, manager of the treatment plant. Besides, research shows that algae absorb nitrogen, potassium and even some pharmaceuticals that otherwise would be dumped back into the Kansas River.

The plant’s effluent currently meets discharge standards set by regulators, she said, but the possibility of making the waste even cleaner — especially as federal environmental regulations continue to tighten — has her optimistic.

Especially if such systems can make fuel in the process.

“It’s good for everybody,” she said.

Growth potential

Smith said KU’s project was among only a few in the world to include functioning, pilot-scale bioreactors connected to a municipal wastewater treatment plant. While corn can produce only 18 gallons of plant oil per acre, and soybeans can yield about 48 gallons of plant oil per acre, Smith figures that algae could provide unsurpassed performance: up to 5,000 gallons of such oil per acre.

The oil then would be used to make biodiesel, a clean-burning alternative fuel that wouldn’t be reliant on food crops, high-priced fertilizers or other ingredients that could be considered barriers.

Just take the effluent from sewage, stir in some algae and then let nature — with help from some focused researchers — do the rest.

“We’re not even calculating the economics yet,” Smith said. “It could take a year or two or more of tweaking to get the system right, before we put a pencil to paper.”

But Smith and others still see plenty of green in their efforts, growing right along with the algae in their tanks.


devobrun 8 years, 5 months ago

"By feeding algae with essentially free inputs — treated effluent from the city’s sewage-treatment plant"

Inputs include energy to pump, and fertilize. That's right, while the sewage effluent contains nutrients, the balance is probably not what the algae wants. And what about the energy needed to separate the hydrocarbon fuel from the water?

Combination projects like this one have a bad habit of being all things to all people. When the data comes in and when you ask about energy, they tell you about how clean it is. When you ask about the effectiveness of the algae cleaning, they refer to the energy output.

Mark Fagan, Val Smith, and Bob Honea, what is the energy budget for this program? Single entry accounting is fine. Units are joules. Energy costs and energy yields. Simple, straightforward evaluation of the production of energy.

Are there any engineers or physicists on the project? Is it instrumented for energy costs and yields?

Or is this just a glorified science fair project?

Steve Miller 8 years, 5 months ago

science fair project, in about 30 years you'll see the results in a brief report after millions are spent. i guess everyone needs a job however...

imastinker 8 years, 5 months ago

What exactly are you complaining about. Private businesses are spending money in our local economy to support research for a technology that may or may not reduce our dependence on foreign oil. How you can find something to complain about here is beyond me.

lounger 8 years, 5 months ago

Alright lets go. Off of the Old Oil juice in with the sludge. As long as it works, doesnt really pollute then Im all for it. Tired of the Oil wars and the Oil pollution. P e A c E...

imastinker 8 years, 5 months ago

"What if they dont?"

I'm not sure that's a risk I'm willing to take....

Steve Miller 8 years, 5 months ago

put it on your garden, be green, if they start that i'll start flushing on duces and not singles.

Chris Golledge 8 years, 5 months ago

"science fair project"

Nothing rates high in efficiency at the start. I wonder how the first nuclear reactors rated in terms of energy in versus energy out.

The energy to be gained in this case is solar converted to chemical potential energy. The comparison for judging cost effectiveness would be solar converted to electrical. Then other factors come into play, how easy is it to store or transport the energy. Depending on the nature of where energy is needed, energy stored in a liquid might work better than energy in a battery or live on a wire.

mdrndgtl 8 years, 5 months ago

I've been laying waste in my front yard for years...

Paul R Getto 8 years, 5 months ago

"Nothing rates high in efficiency at the start. I wonder how the first nuclear reactors rated in terms of energy in versus energy out." ======== Good point. As I recall, the early advocates of nuclear said they would be so efficient the energy would be 'too cheap to meter.' Didn't turn out quite that way, but we need to revisit the nuclear issue as part of the transformation package.

devobrun 8 years, 5 months ago

The big difference between algae and nuclear is the energy density. Indeed, nuclear has the potential to have way too much energy density and .....well boom. The trick 50 years ago was to disperse the energy safely.

Algae, solar, and wind have the problem of too little energy density.

Solar, wind, and algae get their energy from the sun. So far, many decades of research has yet to find a competitor to fossil fuel, except nukes. Oil has about a 3 to 1 yield, natural gas and coal are way better than that.

Fossil fuel is reliable and doesn't need a backup. All sun-based alternatives do need a backup. While solar panels and windmills can be built with greater than 1:1 efficiencies, they require backup. Their duty cycle of 25% is a big problem.

Algae takes sunlight and converts CO2, water and trace minerals into hydrocarbon when the sun shines. The hydrocarbon is mixed with the water and must be separated. Pumps, fertilizer, evaporation all require energy.

Do you get more energy out of the algae process than you put in? Can the efficiency be improved to the point that it is usable?

Nuclear energy back in the 1950s had massive upside. Wild statements were made and not met. But the yield from nukes is still competitive with hydrocarbon. It isn't free, but it is way better than the sun-based stuff now.

Oh, and how long do you think it takes to perfect wind, solar, and algae? None of these are really new. They are just being repackaged and promoted. If this technology was prime time, we'd have it by now.

devobrun 8 years, 5 months ago

Build the algae system. Run everything from a diesel generator. Produce diesel from the algae. Can you run the generator and the rest of the operation and still have diesel left over to sell?

Or does it run down and leave you with nothing? No energy subsidies, just run the show from the energy produced.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 5 months ago

Good thing devo came here to let us know he's already done all the research, so no use wasting any time researching systems that don't fit his preconceived notions or ideological litmus tests.

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