Advancing Algae

NMSU embarks on extensive algae initiative funded by the U.S. military
By Erin Voegele | December 28, 2010

Researchers at New Mexico State University have been awarded a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Air Force to study all aspects of algae jet fuel production, from cultivation to utilization. According to Shuguang Deng, a NMSU professor of engineering leading the study, the project is slated to last approximately 12 months.

One key aspect of the study is to determine if NMSU’s technology is feasible, Deng says. “If it is feasible, then what will be the cost?” he asks. “We want to find out what the bottom line is.” The project is designed to address each stage of algae-based biojet fuel production. Deng and his team will use two algae cultivation methods, an open pond system and a bioreactor. “We are trying to optimize energy production from the algae species,” he says. “Not only biomass, but more importantly I think for this project is the lipids, because we need oil.”

The team is currently producing about one dry kilogram of algae a month, but Deng says that rate will increase to approximately 15 to 20 dry kilograms per month by March 2011. Algae produced by the team will then be transferred to Deng’s lab, where his team will work on extraction and conversion processes. “We are working on a few options right now,” Deng says. One involves multiple steps, including drying, extraction and reforming. “We’re also working a very new process, called extractive conversion,” he continues. “So, we will do the extraction and conversion in a single step.”

Fuel produced in NMSU’s lab will be transferred to the University of Central Florida, where it will be burned in a jet engine to determine what effects it might have on the engine components and fuel system. Since the project is only slated to last 12 months, Deng says the team will be unable to perform any long-term studies. “If possible, we would like to continue this project with the Air Force for another one or two years,” he says.

At the close of the project, Deng and his team will supply the Air Force with samples of both the finished biojet fuel and the algae oil. Deng also notes that he has been approached by the Canadian Aviation and Aerospace Museum, which would like to create an exhibition to display a sample of the algae oil and biojet fuel.

According to Deng, the U.S. currently imports about 30 percent of its energy from abroad. Domestically produced advanced biofuels could help reduce that percentage. He also notes that annual jet fuel use on a global basis equates to approximately 80 billion gallons, with the U.S. Department of Defense alone consuming nearly 4.6 billion gallons of that.

In addition to providing a national benefit, NMSU’s algae research will also benefit its local community. “I think New Mexico State is establishing itself as a national leader on algae biofuel as a resource,” Deng says. “I think this grant is going to boost our [program] and is also going to help us build up its foundation for the future.” 

—Erin Voegele