Researchers to use algae to make diesel fuel
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The vial of fuel that Andre Boehman and Bradley Cardinale are trying to fill would fit four times into a two-liter bottle of Faygo Redpop.
The University of Michigan professors and their team will try to do this for $2.5 million, most of it from a U.S. Department of Energy grant.
When they’ve finished the project in three years, Boehman, Cardinale and the rest of the team, including researchers from Penn State and the University of Delaware, hope to provide one possible solution to the challenges of climate change and pollution.
And the root of their efforts is a living organism – algae.
The grant will help pay for the team’s plans to separate oil from algae into a viable diesel fuel blend, one that is primarily a renewable energy source.
With a United Nations panel warning this month of the need for “rapid and far-reaching” changes to limit global warming impacts, algal fuel could be an answer, said Boehman, a mechanical engineer and director of the University of Michigan’s W.E. Lay Automotive Laboratory.
"We have to start making ... faster moves for reducing our carbon footprint,” Boehman said.
“And one of the most effective ways of reducing our carbon footprint, which could be put into effect almost immediately, is to burn lower-carbon fuels in the vehicles we have today.
That may take a decade or a generation to make it happen at scale, but we need technologies that are scalable, and that’s where Brad comes in.”
Cardinale, a professor of environment and sustainability, has been growing algae in artificial ponds in the Pinckney area.
His challenge is to grow a stable crop of algae, which can be turned over to chemical engineers and then to Boehman for use in a diesel engine.
The team’s approach to picking the right species of algae from the “hundreds of thousands” in existence is through soft, or ecological, engineering, Cardinale said.
“Instead of fighting against nature to grow these algal biofuels ... maybe we should work with Mother Nature because she’s had about 3 billion years of evolution to create things that are highly productive,” Cardinale said.
The group will try to settle on a species that can resist disease and grow consistently in large enough volumes and has the chemical properties which work well in engines.