Arizona Home To Algae Biofuel Research

By  Stina Sieg
January 16, 2014

(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
Algae is being cultivated and studied by ASU, for everything from fuel to food.
(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
ASU professor Milton Sommerfeld has been studying algae for decades. He stands in front of a pond waiting to be populated by the single-cell organisms.
(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
Algae can be processed into any liquid fuel product around, like kerosene and diesel.
(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
ASU has studied more than 1,000 strains of algae over the years and is always looking for varieties that grow quicker.
(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
Algae fuel is still cost-prohibitive, but ASU is looking at ways to make extracting oil from algae cheaper.

One day, your car could run on algae. Scientists have been saying that for decades. The military and energy companies have already experimented with algae-based biofuel, but it has yet to be brought to the masses. Much of the research that could do that is happening in Arizona.

Every day, green liquid bubbles from rows of glass tanks in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, and almost as often, the sun is shining bright outside at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation. That is actually fueling the growth of these super-productive, single-cell organisms.

To Milton Sommerfeld, a professor at Arizona State University, this is not pond scum, it is biofuel, that just has not been processed yet. He is happy to show off the finished products in his lab across the street.

“This is like crude petroleum,” Sommerfeld said, holding a jar of dark, molasses-like liquid.

He rummaged through his bag before finding another jar, this one filled with something light yellow.

“And here’s an example of where we’ve taken the algae oil and made biodiesel,” Sommerfeld said.

He then stressed that it looked just like regular diesel, though it burns much cleaner. He explained that algae can be turned into any liquid fuel product on the market, with the help of heat, pressure or solvents. That has been known for years.

How to make it economically feasible still is not. It is estimated that a gallon of this algae fuel would cost consumers more than $20, but Sommerfeld thinks that is bound to change.

“One of the advantages of the algae is that they’re making the fuel and the other products in real time, not geologic time,” Sommerfeld explained.

Meaning you do not have to wait millions of years before you can extract it, like petroleum or coal, and that is not the only benefit of algae cultivation. A few miles down the road in Gilbert, a company called Heliae makes an array of things from algae, from supplements to beauty products, but it doesn’t do fuel. CEO Dan Simon explained that was a business decision. As he put it, “until you can produce algae fuels at $3 per gallon, you’re not really going to have an open market opportunity.”

That opportunity might not come along for another five years, maybe 10. Or maybe decades, according to Heather Youngs. She is a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley who is not shy about her respect for algae.

“Yeah, they’re amazing, amazing creatures, with a lot of potential,” Youngs said. “And I can understand why people are so excited about them, but that doesn’t mean fuel is their strong suit. It’s true that algae grows easily in Arizona. Algae ponds need large, flat surfaces and sunshine, which the state has lots of, but all that land is expensive, as are the nutrients needed to help algae thrive."

Youngs said Berkeley looked at all of these factors when predicting algae’s role in America’s energy future.

“The analysis that we’ve done in our institute, really, unless there’s some significant advance to bring the cost of production down, does not predict a high percentage of algae,” Youngs said.

But that does not stop the algae believers at ASU from trying to make the production of algae oil more efficient and cheaper. The university belongs to a nation-wide algae research partnership called ATP3. Terri Belisle is one of the ASU researchers who contributes to that project.

“I feel like it’s just this giant, giant pool of, like, ideas and interactions and communication that really needs to happen, in all forms of science, in order for anything to really progress,” Belisle said.

Belisle believes it will probably take many different sources to eventually replace fossil fuels, and she believes algae will be part of that patchwork.

“The timeline is always the question,” she said. “Everybody always asks, ‘when when?’”

And Belisle cannot answer that. No one in the algae world can, yet.