This summer, a team of Montana State University researchers made a scientific breakthrough that has eluded scientists for decades. It’s a discovery that makes algae a much more viable source of biofuel.
Science and industry have been making biofuels for a long time, from things like corn oil, soybean oil, and algae oil. It’s always been difficult to make a biofuel as economical as a conventional crude oil. The price of crude oil usually has to be a very high cost per barrel before it’s really feasible. But the MSU Algal Biofuels group is making that a little more competitive. The team found a way to get four times as much biofuel from a given amount of algae.
“Our grad student Rob Gardner has been investigating what we did 20 years ago,” said MSU Research Professor Emeritus in Microbiology Keith Cooksey.
The notion Gardner explored was adding baking soda to the algae. It’s a concentrated source of carbon dioxide which plants use to grow. Dr. Cooksey tried the same thing in the 90’s but said he “missed the timing.” That’s what Gardner found after a year and a half of research: the exact right point in the growing process to add that baking soda.
“It doubles the rate of production of oil,” Cooksey said.
Not only does the process double the amount of oil that can be squeezed from the algae, it grows the algae in half time–getting producing four times as much fuel.
“It was a happy day,” Gardner said about the day of the discovery. “We fought this for a long time and trial and error and finally we stumbled across the right answer.
And I guess that happens a lot in science, but that was a really good day.”
The university has been busy the last few months applying for a patent on the method and is now searching for someone to license it.
The research team says the discovery makes algae potentially the most efficient biofuel crop.
Cooksey, 75, researched algal biofuel 20 years ago and published more than 40 papers in the general area, but said the government eventually lost interest and withdrew its funding. The trend has reversed itself, however, and the field is exploding. Cooksey doesn’t think the interest will disappear this time because some of the biggest energy users in the world — members of the defense and commercial airline industries — have thrown their support behind pursuing the idea.
Cooksey is now in demand for his expertise, but he is still miffed about the lost years.
“It’s great, but it’s frustrating,” Cooksey said. “Why the hell didn’t we do this 20 years ago, because we would be where we’d like to be by now.”