Professor converts algae into biodiesel

Elisse Lorenc

With all the research condoned for alternate biodiesel resources, Zhiyou Wen, professor of food science and human nutrition, partakes in a pecular alternative — microalgae.

Wen and a group of colleagues harvested algae and converted the oil from the algae into biofuel for alternative energy research.

“It’s about lipid separation from algae, so [Wen] is going to grow the algae for us, design the bioreactor, dewatering the algae and separate the lipid from the cells and the lipids used for biodiesel,” said Tong Wang, professor of food science and human nutrition.

Wen is working to create a better outlet for harvesting microalgae because it has several benefits including a high rate in productivity.

“The productivity is really high; growing soybean or corn, you need a whole season, a whole year to grow, algae is about seven to 10 days per crop, per harvest,” Wang said.

There’s a large abundance of it, said Zhihwu Zung, professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering. Some people are working at a genetic level to increase the oil content.

“Single-celled microalgae in comparison to the growth rate is much faster, you try to grow biomass at a faster rate, algae can beat the rest out of all the plants,” Zung said.

In comparison with terrestrial plants like soybeans or corn, where one only harvests the plant once a season, algae can grow throughout the year if controlled with good conditions, Wen said.

“There’s a lot of personal interest all over the world in making algae into biofuel,” he said.

A critical attribute to the algae is a possible alternative from our dependency on crude petroleum.

“Petroleum is from underground sources,” Zung said. “It’s not renewable. Eventually it’s going to use up and then you think about the carbon footprint that’s conveyed underground. You combust it to be converted into energy — you release carbon dioxide.

“In this case, algae absorbs the pollutants, they fix the carbon dioxide from atmosphere,” he said. “They convert that into the oil content and then also it’s renewable.”

Petroleum-based products are in limited supply so people need to look for an alternative source, Wang said. Some don’t want to put all the soybean oil or corn oil into algae, because then there’s a limited supply for human purposes like animal feed and food, Wang said.

Wen’s research is still in the early stages and with the help of his colleagues, they hope for a breakthrough.

“People are all doing different things and its pockets here and there,” Wang said. “Eventually when you have a critical breakthrough everything comes together and the process will be optimized. Right now it’s still relatively infancy stage.”