Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have developed a one step process for converting algae to biofuel. The simplified process is outlined in a paper titled, “Use of Anion Exchange Resins for One-Step Processing of Algae from Harvest to Biofuel,” written by University of Texas biomedical engineers Jessica Jones, Cheng-Han Lee, James Wang, and Martin Poenie. The paper can be found here.

As Jones, Lee, Wang, and Poenie point out in their introduction, some types of algae are promising as a sustainable source of fuel. This is largely for three reasons: algae grows rapidly, has high triacylglycerol (TAG) content, and is capable of growing on non-arable land. But the numerous advantages that algae offer as a renewable resource have not been fully explored.

“The vast commercial potential of algae as a renewable resource has barely been tapped,” said Jerry Brand, the Jack S. Josey Professor in Energy Studies and director of the UTEX Culture Collection of Algae in the College of Natural Sciences.

Oil from algae has been traditionally used to create biofuel, but the process for obtaining oil from algae is expensive.

Robert Hebner, director of the Center for Electromechanics (CEM) and research professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering, commented that a significant reduction in the cost of algae-to-biofuel conversion is needed in order for algae biofuels to be truly commercially successful.

“The future commercialization of advanced algae biofuels is dependent upon reducing the cost of growth another ten-fold,” Hebner said.

University of Texas scientists Jones, Lee, Wang, and Poenie decided to explore the possibility of simplifying the algae-to-biodiesel conversion process so that the costly oil extraction would no longer be a necessary part of the process.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have developed a one step process for converting algae (shown above) into biofuel. Credit: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The researchers used anion exchange resins (insoluble organic polymers) to aid in the conversion process. According to the study, the anion exchange resins “bind and accumulate algal cells out of suspension.”

To put it simply, the anion exchange resins are able to harvest cells of algae from water. This dewatered concentrate is then treated with sulfuric acid/methanol, which results in the desired algae-to-biodiesel conversion.

In addition to converting algae to biofuel, the process also regenerates resin, and offers an easy way for researchers to reuse the sulfuric acid/methanol. This innovative procedure is promising for the future of biofuel: not only is it highly sustainable, it could also prove to be more cost effective than current biodiesel production methods.

According to the Energy Information Administration, current methods for producing biodiesel are significantly more expensive than methods for producing petroleum. In 2012, biodiesel production from soybean oil cost $2.80 per gallon, and biodiesel production from yellow grease cost $1.55 per gallon, in comparison to the $0.75 that it cost to produce petroleum.

The study from the University of Texas at Austin could help change this; however, and reduce the expenses involved in biofuel production.

Dr. Martin Poenie, Associate Professor in molecular cell and developmental biology, and part of the research team from the University of Texas at Austin, is optimistic about the promise of the resin-based process in biofuel production.

“Although further development is needed, we believe that the resin-based methods we have described show great potential for streamlining the processing of algae, while improving biofuel yields and reducing processing costs,” Poenie said.

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