It was, in every sense, the Holy Grail of biofuels research, and one that scientists had been looking for since the early 1990s. So, of course, when Montana State University (MSU) researchers Keith Cooksey, Brent Peyton and Rob Gardner came upon it, they were amazed and ecstatic.
Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, the cheap, ubiquitous chemical that makes soda bread rise and laundry smells disappear, was able in laboratory experiments to more than double the amount of algal oil produced in half the time in three different types of algae.
Of course, there’s a caveat; the baking soda has to be added at a particular time in the algae-to-oil cycle. Even so, the discovery is so momentous that MSU is now offering the technology for licensing.
For Cooksey (research professor emeritus in microbiology), Peyton (professor in chemical and biological engineering and associate director of MSU's Thermal Biology Institute), and Gardner (an MSU chemical and biological engineering), and all members of the Algal Biofuels Group – a division of MSU’s Energy Research Institute – the discovery is a prime example of how the Institute uses its US$15 million in annual funding to deliver usable energy technologies to the private sector.
The work took 18 months, using three types of algae (two brown and one green), but the rewards of their trial-and-error delving into chemistry is a “big deal”, and one that promises to put algal biofuels on a competitive footing with oil in less than two decades – or just about the amount of time Cooksey has spent researching biofuels.
Unfortunately, Cooksey notes, interest in biofuels died after the combined energy crises of the 1970s faded into history, and it wasn’t until about 2000 that government interest in, and support of, biofuels, was renewed.
While Cooksey decries the lapse – which could have put the U.S. well ahead of the curve – he is glad that the strong collaborative efforts between MSU’s chemical, biological engineering and microbiology departments has proved so fruitful, especially now that biofuel development is likely become integral to U.S. national security.
One of the major advantages of the discovery is that it allows producers to avoid the algal-pond degradation, or contamination, which inevitably occurs over time. In fact, advances of this type are what prompt biofuel industry CEOs to suggest that the market will be ready to take on oil within the next three years.
MSU’s Energy Research Institute is also working in the areas of fuel cells, wind energy and carbon sequestration.
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