By Thomas Guengerich
SOCORRO, N.M., June 26, 2008 – Chemical engineering professor Corey Leclerc sees algae as a much superior alternative to corn as a basis for biofuel – and he’s researching methods to make the process more cost efficient.
“Making oil from algae is simple, but time consuming,” Leclerc said. “The trick is making the entire process cost-effective.”
Like any industrial process, the production of biodiesel from algae leaves a byproduct. In the case of converting plants to oil and the oil to diesel fuel, the byproduct is glycerol.
A viscous and gelatinous liquid, glycerol has numerous commercial and industrial applications. However, if algae were to become a major source of fuel, the amount of glycerol produced would be far more than any known industry would ever use.
“I’m working on finding a catalyst and reactor that would convert glycerol to hydrogen and carbon monoxide and do it quickly and at a low temperature,” he said. “We have industrial uses for glycerol. But if you make too much of it, what happens to the market?”
Leclerc and his chemical engineering students are investigating methods and techniques for breaking down glycerol into more basic elements – like hydrogen and carbon-monoxide, or Syngas, which are important industrial chemicals and have many applications. Elemental chemicals like hydrogen and carbon-monoxide are more marketable than glycerol and could lead to additional revenue streams for algae-oil manufacturers, he said.
He recently hired a post-doctoral researcher who will focus on finding a chemical engineering solution. Leclerc secured a National Science Foundation grant to fund the research for the next two years.
LeClerc is among a growing group of researchers focusing on algae as a logical source of oil and fuel. The skyrocketing price of crude oil was one of many steps in a long, complicated supply-and-demand domino effect. One main side effect over the past two years is the drastic increase in the cost of corn. Many American farmers are growing corn – not for consumption, but for ethanol.
Not only is the price of corn jumping, but many other crops – like hops and barley – are in short supply or much more expensive, or both.
“We can make biodiesel from edible oils. The question is ‘Do you want to get it from foods that feed people?’” LeClerc said. “That’s a real big motivation for algae biodiesel research.”
Companies in California, Texas and Florida are leading the effort to produce and market fuel from algae. PetroSun of Rio Hondo, Texas, began producing fuel in April 2008. The company says it can produce 4.4 million gallons of oil every year from its 1,100 acres of algae ponds – roughly 4,000 gallons per acre. In contrast, one acre of corn produces about 330 gallons of ethanol, according to industry reports.
Algae is considered one of the most promising options for future biofuel production for a variety of reasons. Algae yields significantly more energy per acre than its closest biofuel competitors. Algae does not require fresh water or arable land. Experts say that if all of the fuel in the United States were replaced with algae biofuels, an area no larger than the state of Maryland would be required to produce it – making algae a much more efficient user of land than corn or soy ethanol, for example.
LeClerc said algae has the highest potential to diminish American reliance on fossil fuels and return agricultural production to food instead of fuel.
New Mexico Tech Vice President of Research and Economic Development Van Romero said Leclerc’s research is an important part in the advancement of alternative fuels.
“This whole area of research is very important,” Romero said. “New Mexico is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the thrust of research into biofuels. Dr. Leclerc’s work fits in very well.”
New Mexico Tech will be the lead research institute in the Hot Springs Motorplex planned in Truth or Consequences. That facility will include six race tracks, including a NASCAR test facility.
“Tech has a long history of taking raw materials and turning them into usable products,” Romero said. “First, as a mining school. Then, with petroleum and metallurgy. Dr. Leclerc’s work is the logical extension of that history.”
The algae-to-fuel process has three main components: growing algae, extracting oil from the algae and converting algae oil into usable fuel.
Leclerc is working with researchers at New Mexico State University who are testing different strains of algae for high oil content – both in the lab and in the field. Companies in Spain and Netherlands are also researching and marketing algae-based fuel.
“With any biodiesel, feedstock is crucial,” Leclerc said. “We have to grow algae that has a high oil content. Once you identify that type of algae, you need a growing environment – ponds – that have only that type of algae. Plus you need to eliminate micro-organisms that will consume the algae.”
Identifying the best strain of algae will maximize the amount of oil generated.
While traditional agricultural crops such as corn and soybeans are being aggressively promoted as feedstocks for biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, recent research suggests that algae may be a far more effective and efficient feedstock than corn or soy.
Corn yields only 18 gallons of oil per acre per year. Soybeans are slightly better at 48 gallons. The potential yield from algae is from 5,000 up to a maximum potential of 15,000 gallons per acre.
The huge impact of oil prices has led to more interest in algae fuels. Currently, Arizona Power Co. has a pilot algae project. KLM, the Dutch airline, announced in May 2008 that it will convert 10 percent of its fleet to use algae-based jet fuel by late 2009. According to a company report, algae-based fuel is cost-effective when the cost of petroleum exceeds $100 per barrel. KLM reports it will save millions of euros each year.
Currently more than 100 ethanol refineries in America now produce now than 5.4 billion gallons a year, with dozens of additional ethanol plants planned to come on line in the nest few years.
The Bush administration has set a target of 35 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2017, which would displace about 15 percent of U.S. gasoline demand. The main question is if there is enough corn out there to meet that goal.
Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, said 35 billion gallons of ethanol a year would require an additional 129,000 square miles of farmland — an area the size of Kansas and Iowa — into corn production.
Increased demand for corn from ethanol is already straining supplies and pushing prices higher. Corn futures prices recently topped $4 a bushel, the highest price in a decade, raising production costs for livestock producers.
The Department of Agriculture forecast in May that by the time this year’s harvest is ready in August, corn in storage will have dwindled to a three-week supply — the lowest level in a decade.