Turning Algae into Energy in New Mexico


Richard Sayre: The upside of renewable fuels
is that they’re sustainable, they reduce the environmental impact, and they can help potentially
mitigate climate change. We particularly like algae as biomass or biofuel feedstock, algae
grow about two to ten times faster than the best terrestrial crop plants, they often will
store oils as an energy reserve product. And oils that come out of these algae we found,
can be directly converted into fuels using preexisting technologies. Jose Olivares: So the laboratory is interested
in this area because we have a mission around energy security, providing new technologies
for energy for the nation. The big problem, the big challenge is how to get that whole
process to be economically and energetically efficient. Sayre: To make algobiofuels economically viable,
there are two very important factors that we have to improve. And that’s the biomass
productivity per unit land area, or the yield, and the other very important factor that we
need to improve is reducing the costs of harvesting the algae from the pond. Olivares: The laboratory is actually developing
some nice technologies in a number of different areas, transforming algae so that it can produce
more lipids, more biomass, overall better productivity, under better conditions. Peter Lammers: You’ve seen how we transfer
the algae from the lab, from colonies on a petri dish to larger cultures. We bring them
out here, adapt them to the outdoors and the sunshine. We begin to scale them up, pretty
soon we’ll have algae at hundreds of acres, if not thousands of acres. Sayre: Another important concern is water.
How much water are we going to use? And, to address those issues, we’re now focusing on
developing heat-tolerant strains of algae that can be grown in ponds that are covered
with plastic to reduce the evaporation. We’ve figured out how to engineer algae so they
can use light more efficiently than normal algae do. we’ve seen up to a two-fold increase
in growth. We’ve also figured out how to engineer algae to make more oil. So, at the time that
we want to harvest the algae, we’ll induce the expression of a gene that will cause all
the algae to stick to each other, settle out of the pond, and then we pick them up. Maybe
the last reason that immediately comes to mind why we like algae is that we can recycle
the nutrients that are in waste waters. Lammers: Algae can do waste water treatment
better than conventional systems. So why not take an energy-intensive expensive process
and turn it into an energy-generating system where you’re getting clean water and liquid
fuels as your two products, and do that in a way that generates revenue.

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