Once known only as the slimy scourge of backyard ponds and lakes, algae is emerging as a superhero in the race for cleaner and renewable energy resources. But this hero is not without its Achilles' heel: algae is vulnerable to fluctuations in weather and temperature, limiting commercial growers and researchers in their selection of growing systems and locations.
“The University of Dayton Research Institute has developed the technology to generate a cost-competitive biofuel intermediate in the United States,”
But researchers at the University of Dayton Research Institute are addressing that limitation — and producing a high volume of algae in an outdoor, fully automated, closed system designed to operate 24/7, 365, regardless of the weather.
"Our goal was to design and build an economical and efficient system that could be transported anywhere, easily assembled and operate in any climate, and we’ve done just that," said Sukh Sidhu, head of UDRI’s energy technologies and materials division. "This is all about cleaner air, cleaner water and cleaner energies."
"Algae feeds on carbon dioxide and converts it to a highly desirable oil, which accounts for as much as 70 percent of the organism's body weight in some strains. So we can capture carbon dioxide from stacks of coal boilers and other combustion processes before it’s released into the atmosphere and run it through algae growing systems. We consider this a far better alternative for dealing with CO2 emissions than geosequestration, where carbon dioxide is pumped deep into the earth."
In turn algae oil can be extracted and, along with the proteins and carbohydrates that also make up the body of algae, used to create renewable resources for biofuel.
"We discovered that there are no 'best strains' of algae, but that the key factors to high yield are environmental — factors such as weather and temperature, which can be so unpredictable," Sidhu said. "That's why most systems are open, such as natural or man-made ponds, and found in warmer climates.
"And that's why our system is different. It will operate well in any location, regardless of season or climate."
Aside from being more cost-efficient, UDRI’s growing process is "greener" than other systems, using livestock manure instead of chemical fertilizer as a nutrient source for the algae.
After demonstrating the technology, which includes proprietary design modifications engineered by program principal investigator Moshan Kahandawala, the next step will be commercialization.
"The University of Dayton Research Institute has developed the technology to generate a cost-competitive biofuel intermediate in the United States," Sidhu said. "We've taken it from beakers and jars in the lab to full-size and fully operational modules that can be transitioned to the marketplace for commercial use. And we’re pretty proud of that."
UDRI has been performing research, testing and development of algae and algae-growing systems for pollution control and alternative energies since 2009 under funding from the Air Force Research Laboratory Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.