December 13, 2010
It could be said that Colorado State is growing colonies of researchers -- as well as algae -- in its exploration of alternative fuels. CSU's community of researchers is populated by the significant number of faculty devoted to the study of energy and the environment and through partnerships with alternative energy companies.
Tara Schumacher, a Ph.D. grad student in Ken Reardon’s lab, looks through a microscope surrounded by flasks of different algae strains.
As a researcher at Colorado State University, Assistant Professor Tom Bradley expects to dig and dig – and dig some more – for his data. But it turns out measuring the environmental impacts of algae as a biofuel is easier when you have a legion of researchers backing you up.
CSU is a hotbed of expertise on converting algae to biodiesel because of significant faculty research on energy and the environment. “We’re very lucky to be doing this work here at the University,” says Bradley. “Anywhere else, we’d have to beg for the data.”
Public-private partnerships on a national scale also have played a major role in alternative fuel research. In January, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that CSU; Solix, a privately held alternative energy company; and other collaborators would be part of a $49 million consortium coordinated through the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.
The consortium, called the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts, is part of an $80 million investment in advanced biofuels research announced by Chu. The consortium is the only one funded by the U.S. Department of Energy that focuses solely on algae.
Working on the DOE grant are CSU’s Anthony Marchese and Ken Reardon, Jud and Pat Harper Endowed Chair of Chemical and Biological Engineering, from the College of Engineering and Shawn Archibeque from the College of Agricultural Sciences. The three will investigate reuse of byproducts from the algae-to-oil process, properties of algae-produced fuels, and whether the alternative fuel can easily replace gasoline and petroleum diesel, says Marchese, who is leading the University’s portion of the grant.
Jenna Bloxom, a student in a CSU program funded by the NSF to provide interdisciplinary biofuels training for doctoral students, works with cell cultures.
“The goal behind the consortium is to advance the current status of research and development into algae biofuels and really encompass the entire process of algae biofuels – from biology to cultivation at large scales to converting algae oil to biofuel and characterizing the fuels that you get,” Marchese says.
CSU researchers are responsible for about $1.25 million of the grant:
“I’m looking at characterizing those fuels to make sure that they’re fit for purpose,” Marchese says. “We can’t expect the engine manufacturers to design engines that run specifically on algae. It’s more likely that we’ll need to produce fuels that have properties identical to gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.”
Marchese is conducting one of the first studies on the emissions produced from algae as a biofuel with fellow mechanical engineering Professor Azer Yalin. He adds that a minimum of two master’s students and one doctoral student will be working on the DOE project with him.
Undergraduates are likely to be involved as well – two-thirds of the roughly 60 students typically working in the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab are undergraduate students, said Mac McGoldrick, program manager for the lab.
“These are often students from a variety of disciplines, not just engineering, and they’re learning from some of the best people in their fields,” McGoldrick says. "Dozens of undergraduates are involved in biofuels research projects across the University."
Marchese, Reardon and Archibeque already work together as members of the University’s Clean Energy Supercluster, an internal University network of more than 150 researchers exploring topics related to energy and the environment.
Research into biofuels is an especially strong component of CSU’s Clean Energy Supercluster. A sample:
Contact: Emily Wilmsen