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Algae Fuel Research by Appalachian State University students

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A team of seven Appalachian State University students received honorable mention this past weekend during the People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Competition for their research with algae as a source of alternative energy. The event was sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

A team of Appalachian students use algae to produce oil that can be used to make biofuel. Photo by Holt Menzies

The contest, held April 18-20 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., highlighted some of the brightest minds and ideas concerning sustainability. The competition was also part of the National Sustainable Design Expo.
A team of Appalachian students use algae to produce oil that can be used to make biofuel. Photo by Holt Menzies

For the team, headed by industrial technology graduate student Erika R. Porras, the competition was the fruition of nearly two years of effort.

“The idea came to out of a class I took in August 2007,” Porras said. “I applied and sent the proposal in around December 2007, received notification of the award in April or May 2008 and then actually received the grant in September 2008.”

Porras’ team received a $10,000 grant for phase one of the competition, which allowed the team to design and build an alga-cultural facility in Vilas, where they cultivated chlorella. Chlorella is a heartier type of algae that is easy to grow and is able to withstand a broad range of temperature, senior biology major Zachery Spivey said.

One of the major benefits of the program is the use of bio waste, or simple landfill waste, to produce biodiesel, Porras said.

“The major goal of the project was to research and demonstrate how the use of food waste could be beneficial for alternative energy,” Porras said. “We used a fast-growing organism to produce an oil that can be used for biodiesel.”

To do this, the team constructed an algae photo-bioreactor. They grew the chlorella in a solar greenhouse with carbon dioxide diverted from bio waste methane emissions to the algae. This exhibited how problem waste can be converted into an alternative source of energy, the team said.

The team first grew the algae in a complicated gyrating system of tubes, vents and lights, before it was transferred to a smaller pond within the greenhouse where it could be harvested for the purpose of extracting oil for biodiesel.

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