Algae may soon fuel your car thanks to U of M researchers

Work could change reliance on foreign oil
Posted at 9:16 AM, Nov 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-13 11:22:33-05

Researchers at the University of Michigan are working to create a fuel out of algae that could change everything about the energy field.

Recently the U.S. Department of Energy chipped in $2 million to help researchers create a biofuel that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent.

Less than a month ago, a new UN climate change report left a scary assessment: We have until 2030 to prevent Earth’s climate from destabilizing.

What does that mean?

Record droughts and heatwaves have led to extreme droughts. The same patterns have led to warmer surface water which has led to devastating hurricanes and typhoons. At the rate we’re currently traveling down, according to the UN report, the impacts will only worsen as the planet’s temperature continues to rise.

Among the attempts to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions are Renewable Fuel Standards, part of a federal program that requires transportation fuel sold in the United States to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuels — by 2022, 36 billion gallons of transport fuels must come from “blended sources.” Corn-based ethanol, is expected to only meet about 15 million gallons of that requirement meaning biofuels from algae may be integral for the U.S. to meet energy demands.

“The calculations suggest if we’re going to make biofuels from something like corn we’re going to have to convert our entire agricultural belt to a biofuel producing belt,” said Professor Brad Cardinale, the head of the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR). “On the other hand, if we want to meet our energy needs with algal biofuel we probably need a tiny little section in the corner of Arizona, or Hawaii. The footprint is much smaller because algae are far more productive than corn.”

Currently researchers at the University of Michigan are working to make algal biofuel a reliable commodity. The problem that they’ve had is that in a safe environment, like a controlled lab, it’s a great resource. However, when you attempt to grow algae in a commercial-sized pond they crash due to weather, disease or things that like to eat algae. The goal right now is the work with the environment to create a pond that has a continual source of algae.

What makes this even more interesting is the process that will be taking place in Ann Arbor. The researchers are working in a full loop. The people growing algae are working with the lab researchers who are turning algae into fuel. Those researchers are working with the folks who test the biofuel that comes out at the end on real diesel engines to gauge what changes they need to burn cleaner, or better. That means the folks on the back-end of the project are guiding the people in the field to see whether they can make changes to the algae, or the process in which they turn it into fuel, to get a better product at the end.

“We’re playing with different fuel mixtures and then giving feedback to my colleagues,” explained Andre Boehman — who wrote the grant proposal. “I’ll ask that they tweak it a little this way, tweak it a little that way. That’s what we’ll be exploring in the initial years.”

The team in Michigan was already one of the first in the world to go from small outdoor ponds to a refined fuel that could run in a diesel engine. That’s allowed them to determine the combination of algal species that perform best in the diesel engines.

The latest investment is part of a $10 million investment in the latest funding cycle of the DOE’s co-optimization of Fuels and Engines initiative, considered a “first-of-it’s-kind effort” to given industry experts scientific knowledge to help maximize vehicle performance and efficiency.

In addition to helping industry meet standards set by federal programs, some experts say that algal biofuels could change America's reliance on foreign oil if it becomes a solution that can be built to scale.