Researcher helping turn algae to fuel

PULLMAN — There are a lot of things standing in the way of Shulin Chen’s quest to make energy from algae, the simple, light-loving organisms we usually associate with pond scum, seaweed and deck slime.

But in a world of rising greenhouse gases and dwindling energy options, he’s forging ahead.

“We don’t have other choices,” said Chen, a professor of biological systems engineering. “We have to do it. We make progress one step at a time but I believe eventually we’re going to have a biofuel industry using algae. We have to. There’s little other option.”

His effort took a significant step towards reality this week with word of a $2 million federal appropriation to develop energy-rich algae, the technology to grow them all year, and a way to convert them into fuel and other products. The funding was secured with the help of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., through the 2010 Senate Energy and Water Development appropriations bill and will go to the Washington State Algae Alliance, comprised of WSU, Targeted Growth Inc. of Seattle and Inventure Chemical of Gig Harbor.

As a potential fuel source, microalgae are hard to beat. They grow fast, doubling their mass several times a day. They take up a fraction of the space required to grow other biofuels. And loaded with fat, they are the fried-cheese of the biofuel world.

“The idea of fuel from algae is accepted,” said Chen. “The challenge is to make it work.”

For now, it’s too expensive to produce algae-based fuel—the equivalent of $10- to $30-a-gallon gas.

The solar energy they use is free, but they also require water and fertilizer. An algae production system also needs energy to pump water, carbon-dioxide and nutrients while removing wastes. Those processes right now use a lot more energy than algae produces, said Chen.

Still, he says, there’s no choice but to make algae work.

“With electricity, we have alternative sources,” Chen said. “We can do hydropower. We can do solar energy. We can do wind energy. But liquid transportation fuel is something where we don’t have other options. We have to get that from biomass, either from crop residues or algae. Crop residues are a good source but limited. Algae has the highest potential.”

Demand for algae-based fuel is likely to be driven first by the need to capture carbon dioxide, the most abundant global-warming gas, from producers like coal plants. Development could also be supported by algae
byproducts—proteins and polysaccharides that can be used in feed or health-oriented foods and supplements called “nutraceuticals.” These can help drive production costs down until other energy costs rise to make large-scale fuel production worthwhile.

Chen, who has patents pending on several algae culture, harvesting and nutrient-recycling systems, plans to use the federal money to improve ways to produce and process algae. He says WSU is currently one of the major players among universities in this relatively new field.

“The money we’re receiving will put us one step up,” he said, “and make us a lot more competitive to become a leader in this area.”