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The Next Generation of Biodiesel Coproduct Research

March 7th, 2014 | No Comments | Posted in Algae, Research, University Research

In the early days, the quality of crude glycerin produced at biodiesel plants was of little concern to biodiesel producers. “U.S. biodiesel producers were mainly interested only in the fuel aspect of the business and paid little attention to the byproducts they produced, even though crude glycerin production is 10 percent of the final product,” says Darol Brown, president of Portland, Ore.-based Sego International Inc. “Most did not pay attention to whether they could find a market for the glycerin, or what level of purity the market required. It was generally considered that a market for the crude would develop without their involvement, so they put no time or effort into understanding the total end result of the process.” Brown says in the 1990s, he was the largest importer of refined glycerin in the U.S. “What they needed to consider, and what they have now learned, is that the price they get for their byproducts helps offset their cost of production and profits,” he says. “Those who did not understand this have generally been bought out, or they have gone out of business.”

One example of algae research to produce glycerin is from a  doctoral student  – Karthikeyan Gopalakrishnan at the biosystems engineering department at Clemson University. Gopalakrishnan has been researching the use of crude glycerin as a carbon substrate to increase biomass and lipid production in the algae strain Chlorella protothecoides. “Glycerin is a three-carbon sugar alcohol that can be consumed by algae as a carbon source to produce oils,” he says. “The algae I grow in the lab produce about 60 percent oleic acid, which is an Omega-9 fatty acid.”

Gopalakrishnan says in autotrophy mode, carbon dioxide is a carbon source when coupled with sunlight or artificial light, and oxygen is produced in the process. “In the heterotrophy mode, organic carbon sources like glycerol and glucose can be used,” he says. “The presence of glycerin accelerates the growth of this algal species when compared to carbon dioxide alone.” In addition to crude glycerin, Gopalakrishnan provides other nutrients like yeast extract (a nitrogen source), some phosphate salts (a phosphorous source), vitamins and micronutrients. He says 1 gram of glycerol yields about 0.5 grams of algae containing 50 to 60 percent lipids.

“From my research, methanol has proven to decelerate the growth of the microalgae Chlorella protothecoides,” Gopalakrishnan says. “Other researchers have proved that Chlorella protothecoides has high salt tolerance, as high as 35 grams per liter, which can be equivalent to sea water.”

The goal of his research has been to increase biomass and lipid productivities, an important requisite for commercialization, and to do that, Gopalakrishnan built on previous research on the effect of the carbon/nitrogen ratio, which is “very important for lipid accumulation,” he says. “This was identified [by Yen-Hui Chen and Terry H. Walker at Clemson University] and I have used that in my research for improved biomass and lipid productivities.”

Gopalakrishnan has yet to work with commercial partners on his research, but says, “I would love to work with someone, to see my research into commercial production. Algae is the future of our lives, and I do envision algae biodiesel a reality in the future.” For this to happen, he says, focus must be put on furthering research and receiving government help in the form of grants.

Full Article – http://www.biodieselmagazine.com/articles/17970/the-next-generation-of-biodiesel-coproduct-research

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