LCSN: EYE ON RESEARCH: Turning pools of green algae into piles of green money

January 4, 2010. Retrieved online: January 4, 2010 from Justin Bannister/For the Sun-News, Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES — Imagine filling your tank with a fuel grown in New Mexico, not drilled for in some far-off country. What if that fuel created a more secure energy future while pumping new money into the state’s economy? What would it take to make that fuel economically viable?

That’s what C. Meghan Starbuck, an assistant professor of economics at New Mexico State University, is working on — a way to turn microalgae, and millions of their tiny, slimy friends, into a successful fuel industry for the state.

Microalgae are essentially mini green oil factories, turning carbon and sunlight into oil almost since the beginning of time. While most swimming pool owners will attest it doesn’t take much for algae to start growing in open water, the trick is figuring out how to produce it at a cost that makes sense.

Unlike other crops that have been raised for thousands of years, experts are still perfecting algae farming. The right balance of sunlight, nutrients and other factors needed for algae to produce the most oil is still not clear. Harvesting at the right time is also important to maximizing the amount of oil generated by the plant.

“Algal biofuel can be refined into a variety of fuels, including gasoline. I would run my car on algal-based gasoline, if I could get my hands on a couple of gallons,” Starbuck said. Her car, a 315-horsepower 2010 Mustang GT, comes in handy when making the 143-mile trip between Las Cruces and the NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Artesia.

The Artesia Science Center is home to a project with the Center for Excellence in Hazardous Materials Management, a nonprofit group in Carlsbad leading an effort in southeastern New Mexico to produce biofuels from algae. According to Starbuck, CEHMM is a leader when it comes to scaling-up algae production, an important step in making the biofuel industry economically successful in New Mexico.

“Few companies have been able to produce algae on the scale that they have,” she said. “It’s one thing to have success in a beaker. It’s another thing to replicate that in quantities large enough to sustain an industry.”

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