Vegetable oil, animal fat, chicken feathers, animal manure, coconuts … the search for the perfect alternative fuel source spans almost all organic matter. In Missouri, researchers have set their sights on algae.
The oil spill in the Gulf has brought the volatility of the non-renewable resource to the forefront, but scientists have been working on alternative fuel sources for years.
Dick Sayre is heading up studies on algae at the Danforth Science Center in St. Louis.
He says 100 percent of the algae can be used for oils, so there’s no waste, also, it’s not competing with a food source or land that can be used for other agriculture. However, it makes a product that’s very similar to vegetable oil. Sayre says it’s virtually the same oil make-up.
Sayre says algae can produce up to 30 times more energy per acre than land crops such as soybeans, but it has yet to be produced commercially.
Sayre says algae makes a common-sense choice for biofuel, especially for the pond-rich Midwest.
He says St. Louis has a concentration of talent in micro-algal genomics and bio technology at Washington University and the Danforth Center. Three labs focus on genetic organisms in algae in addition to a number of other labs that work on bacteria and oils. Sayre says all of the programs have come together to work on algal fuels.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that if algae fuel replaced all the petroleum fuel in the United States, it would require only 15,000 square miles — about the size of Maryland.
Algae fuel, also called oilgae, is a third generation biofuel.
A major advantage to biofuels over most other fuel types is that they are biodegradable and so relatively harmless to the environment if spilled.
The algae project in St. Louis is funded by the Enterprise Renta Car Institute for renewable fuel. The Taylor Family, which owns Enterprise, endowed $25 million dollar effort at Danforth to develop renewable fuel resources.
The lab started focusing on bio fuels in 2007.
“Our work on algae previously focused on photosynthesis, vaccines for animals, and removing heavy metals from the the environment,” Sayre says. “When we realized it could be used for renewable energy, we started working on that aspect.”