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Milton Sommerfeld says Algae Commercialization will take 10 Years

February 2nd, 2009 | No Comments | Posted in Algae-Fuel-Research

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The 40-year veteran ASU professor and algologist has spent more than two decades nurturing the idea of extracting biofuel from algae.

“I think it’s going to be one of the alternatives,” Sommerfeld said, standing on a balcony overlooking a plot of land punctuated by giant vats bubbling with the stuff at ASU Polytechnic campus in Mesa.Sommerfeld toiled through the 1980s with modest funding, staff and equipment.These days, with the national consciousness greener than ever, he’s a bit better off.

ASU Professor and Algologist Milton Sommerfeld exhibits the vats of algae in his lab at the Polytechnic Campus in Chandler. Here, he and his staff tests how algae grow at different temperatures.

The work of Sommerfield and Qiang Hu, co-directors of the Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology, or LARB, was recently recognized by Time Magazine as one of the top-20 inventions of 2008. And a $3 million investment, half from financier group Heliae Development LLC and half from Science Foundation Arizona, is helping expand the venture into a viable industry poised to generate algal jet fuel.

“We’re creating an environment for (algae) to grow in an exceptionally fast way,” Sommerfeld said.Small lamps try different light and heat levels on test tubes of algae inside the lab. On a fenced field outside, scaled up versions — 10-yard-long panels and 8-foot-high cylinders — experiment with outside growth.

Once the vats are full with algae, workers collect it, said John Brock, who coordinates the outside lab.“We literally scrape the algae out and take it over to the laboratory (inside),” Brock said.There, it’s centrifuged and a green powder called algal biomass is left behind.The algal oil is extracted from the biomass, leaving behind a high-carbohydrate, protein-rich white powder that can be used for fertilizer or animal feed and is even being looked at as a human food source.

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