Two professors at Arizona State University Polytechnic in east Mesa are exploring the feasibility of producing aviation fuel from the most humble of organisms — algae.
Researchers Qiang Hu and Milton Sommerfeld are part of a university-industrial team that received a $6.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop and commercialize the process.
With the grant, the researchers will screen for oil-rich algae strains and develop an algae production system that will yield competitively priced oil that can be converted into jet fuel for the U.S. Air Force.
Certain strains of algae are especially rich in oil. The key is finding a way to produce it cost-effectively, Sommerfeld said. He thinks it could happen on a commercial scale in five to 10 years.
“It’s all a matter of how much money is put into it,” he said. “If we spent as much money on this as we are on corn-based fuels, it would happen quickly.”
Arizona is a promising location for algae farming, he said. There’s plenty of vacant land and lots of sunshine necessary for growing masses of the stuff. And because algae thrive in nutrient-rich water, wastewater can be used as the medium for growing the plants, reducing the impact on Arizona’s scarce fresh-water resources.
“The water is recycled in closed reactors, so there is very little evaporation,” Hu said.
Hu and Sommerfeld envision commercial operations with thousands of acres of Arizona land covered with bio-reactors producing enough fastgrowing algae to furnish 100 barrels of oil per acre daily.
Sommerfeld said the researchers have identified about 10 strains of algae that have sufficient oil content and grow quickly enough to be candidates for commercial oil production.
He said the search for the best strains and mutations is continuing.
The professors, who work in the School of Applied Arts and Sciences, have already proven that the process works in the lab, and they have tested a larger bio-reactor outside of their lab building at ASU Polytechnic. Now they are working with ASU engineering students to build an even bigger bio-reactor for the defense program.
Algae oil produced at the university will be shipped to UOP, a Des Plaines, Ill.-based subsidiary of Honeywell International that is developing a process to convert it to jet fuel.
By the end of 2008, the program is expected to be producing fuel certified for use in military jets.
“We are confident that we have assembled a strong team of experts that will be successful in proving the viability of biofeedstock technologies for . . . jet fuels,” said Jennifer Holmgren, director of UOP’s Renewable Energy and Chemical unit.