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UNL team looks to tap energy from algae

A team of University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers is working to extract oil from that sticky green stuff that gums up boat motors and fishing lines. Then they'll study the feasibility of using it as a biofuel.

They chose the Greenhouse complex at the Beadle Center into an algae biofuels research facility.

They have begun growing algae in small containers and expect soon to begin growing it in 5-foot-long bags and, eventually, in small, oblong pools called raceways.

"It's an exciting time," said Jim Van Etten, a professor in plant pathology. "It wouldn't surprise me if 10 or 20 years from now, 10 or 20 percent of the liquid biofuels could come from algae. There's a lot of advantages to algae."

A $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy sparked the project, said Paul Black, a lipid biochemist who's part of the UNL team.

The team plans to apply for additional federal funding in the coming months. UNL is partnering with other universities and private companies like Sapphire Energy, a renewable fuels corporation, to conduct its research.

The team also is looking at seeking funding from larger corporations such as ExxonMobil and Chevron that have dedicated funds for renewable fuels research.

With at least 200,000 different algae, the team is examining existing algae for possible use in biofuel production and working to genetically modify it to produce the most lipids possible for conversion to fuel. That genetic engineering has involved looking at viruses that affect algae to discover possible genetic triggers that might produce better algae.

However, little has been done toward genetic modifying or breeding algae strains to improve them.

"That work is just now beginning," said Don Weeks, a UNL biochemistry professor and member of the team. "In the long term, there's quite a great deal of enthusiasm and confidence that algae can be produced that will be much more productive than present strains."

The team also is searching for the most cost-effective methods for extracting lipids to produce biofuel. Now, it would cost $10 to $30 a gallon to produce algal biodiesel.

One method they are examining is using viruses to break down algal cell walls.

"It's clear that might be helpful for extracting lipids from algae on a large scale," Van Etten said

UNL is positioned to be a leader in algae research because it has renowned scientists in the areas of algal virology, algal molecular biology, lipid biochemistry and plant engineering, Black said.

The question now is if the efforts taken by the UNL team along with their innovative ideas would create a breakthrough in the Algae fuel Industry?
Thu March 25 2010 06:05:39 AM by Rumana Sapphire energy  |  virus  |  UNL 1788 views
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