NMSU grant funds research for algal biofuel industry models

Feb. 24, 2009 by Louie Calderon NMSU News Center

A paddlewheel circulates the water in one of the algae ponds at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia, where researchers are growing algae on a large scale. (NMSU photo by Mario A. Montes)

A paddlewheel circulates the water in one of the algae ponds at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia, where researchers are growing algae on a large scale. (NMSU photo by Mario A. Montes)

To support the research for the potential of algal-based fuel, an internal award of $50,000 was recently presented to two New Mexico State University faculty members by the Office of the Vice President for Research.

The award was in support of President Waded Cruzado’s call for a “Year of Sustainability” at NMSU. Meghan Starbuck, an assistant professor in economics and international business, and Luz-Elena Mimbela, a project manager for the Institute of Energy and Environment (IEE), will be developing a techno-economic model for the algal biofuel industry.

“If we can solve the issues related to unlocking the potential of algae, we have the potential to spur tremendous economic growth in the state,” Starbuck said.

The research will develop estimates for a commercial scale algal-based fuel industry in New Mexico.

The support for the project stems from the concept that oils naturally produced by algae can be converted into fuel that can run in most modern vehicles. Starbuck said algae are potentially eight times more efficient at converting sunlight into biomass than the most efficient land-based plant.

The researchers and others investigating algal biofuel are trying to answer the question: “Is it possible to produce enough oil from algae, at low enough prices and without harming the environment or disrupting food supply systems, to compete with fossil fuel oils?”

The models produced by Starbuck and Mimbela’s research will be examining the cost of production, potential supply and price of algal-based fuel, as well as the potential impacts of the industry on the state and economic development.

“Secure, abundant, affordable energy is the life blood of an industrialized economy,” Starbuck said. “Without energy, mankind goes back to the Stone Age.”

Starbuck said the models and simulations created by the project can be used by researchers, investors and policy makers to better understand the effects of renewable energy technology on the economy, energy sector and the environment.

However, developing the research into the next generation of fuels faces numerous barriers, Starbuck said.

“It is a challenge we must meet in order to create new jobs, new growth and new industries for the state and country,” Starbuck said. “The race to develop the next source of energy to fuel the economy is in full force; and if we fail to develop this technology, others will – and the economic development and job creation will be theirs.”

Mimbela and Starbuck were awarded the grant for a proposal submitted to the interdisciplinary research grants competition for 2009.

“The proposal could not have come at a better time,” said Vimal Chaitanya, vice president for research and graduate studies at NMSU. “The answer to the question they raised will have a profound impact on the future of algal fuel sustainability.

In addition to working with other NMSU researchers engaged in biofuels research, they will collaborate with Sandia National Laboratories, National Renewable Energy laboratory, Sapphire Energy and the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management (CEHMM), among others.


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