The future is green, slimy for NMSU’s new Algal Bioenergy Program

November 9, 2010 by Justin Bannister, NMSU News Center

One of the tiniest plants on Earth will soon be swimming all across the dusty desert of New Mexico. That’s if New Mexico State University and its newly created Algal Bioenergy Program have anything to say about it. The program is a centralized effort to coordinate research and economic development opportunities related to fuels made from algae.

“There is enormous potential for a fully functioning algal fuel industry to create jobs and generate revenue for New Mexico, and these are jobs that cannot be shipped overseas,” said Vimal Chaitanya, NMSU’s vice president for research. “This program helps the state of New Mexico, as well as NMSU, which is already considered one of the top universities in the nation for algae research.”

NMSU currently has scientists researching every step of the algae production process, including cultivating, harvesting, extracting, refining and fuel testing. NMSU is also investigating the sustainability and economic impacts of algae production, which would support a variety of products. The university is part of a consortium awarded $44 million earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Energy to study the commercialization of algae-based fuel.

Algae are essentially tiny green oil factories, continuously turning sunlight and carbon dioxide into oils, also known as lipids. Once extracted, those lipids can then be refined into oil, gasoline, diesel and even jet fuel. Unlike ethanol made from grains, algal fuels can be stored in the same tanks, shipped through the same pipelines and run in the same engines as traditional fuels without any necessary modifications. Additionally, oil production in algae is typically 10 times more efficient than oilseed crops and algae can be grown on arid land using salty water unsuitable for other agricultural purposes.

“New Mexico is an ideal location for growing algae because it has lots of high-intensity sunshine, relatively few cloudy days and access to brackish water supplies, which can be used to grow algae,” said Peter Lammers, an NMSU research professor and technical director of the Algal Bioenergy Program. “All the natural resources required are readily available in New Mexico. We are developing a scalable system for the cultivation and harvesting of algae as well as the extraction of biocrude oils for sale to agro-businesses and fuel refineries.”

He said further research and development are needed to lower production costs while increasing the productivity of algae. The five-year goal is to deliver reliable agronomic systems and what he calls “bankable business plans” to farmers who can use them.

In addition to fuel applications, Lammers said algae are rich in carotenoids, omega-3 fatty acids and other high-value nutrients essential to human health. Those can be sold to make algae farming profitable at scales of less than 100 acres while moving toward scales in excess of 10,000 acres. Production of that scale is required to be compatible with the refinery capacity in the region.

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