In the dry climate of Arizona, many researchers at Arizona State University are looking at ways to successfully commercialize algae biofuels, an achievement they believe is just five years away. Two researchers in particular are working hard in two different and important aspects of the industry.
Milton Sommerfeld is one algae scientist at ASU and has been working in the field for 30 years. He has been looking to find the optimum strain of algae for oil production and has received DOE grants to do such
“Graduate and undergraduate students sampled about 250 sites. They went to ponds, streams, lakes, particularly looking for water that was brackish or saline, and they found some very oil-rich algae like we hadn’t tested before.”
In fact, the algae they found changed everything.
“The DOE’s target was 40 percent lipid,” Sommerfeld said. “We met that goal and have kept finding even better algae. Now, we have organisms that will grow algae with a biomass that’s 55 percent oil . . . (so) now, we have algae that can produce an abundance of oil.”
In addition to Sommerfield, Qiang Hu is a bioreactor specialist at ASU. Bioreactors are going to play an important role in the algae industry’s future, be it as stand alone growth chambers or used in conjunction with open ponds.
ASU and other research centers have experimented with artificial ponds to grow algae, but Sommerfeld said the answer likely lies in using large, vertical panels or tubes that require less space.
Hu said creating larger and better bioreactors is just a matter of time, money and design. “We will make better and better bioreactors, and we’ll keep cutting the cost of producing fuel,” he said.
It should be noted that many believe that the future in algae actually lies with open ponds, with those holding this belief pointing to the large and possibly prohibiting costs of bioreactors.
Nevertheless, these two researchers are conducting important research that will advance the overall algae industry.
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