By Teya Vitu –
Algae is nothing more than pond scum to most of us.
Kim Ogden dedicates her career to transforming algae into next-generation jet fuel or locomotive fuel.
Ogden is lead engineer for the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts, a consortium of two national laboratories, 14 universities and 10 companies researching ways to make algae a cost-effective biofuel.
What makes something as unsexy as algae attractive to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and NAABB’s four core research institutions – Arizona, Texas A&M, New Mexico State and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis?
“It can grow quickly compared to other biofuels like corn,” said Ogden, a University of Arizona professor of chemical and environmental engineering. “It can have up to 50 percent of its weight as fatty acids that can be changed into fuel. If an algae crop fails, you can get a whole new crop working again in a week.”
So why have we gotten this far in world history without tapping algae as an alternative for petroleum?
Algae on its own doesn’t grow at a sufficient concentration – only 5 grams per liter of water, which Ogden equates to “a few peas in a liter.”
“The problem is you have to separate that water from the algae,” she said. “The other is separating the algae from the rest of the stuff.”
And thus the 2010 establishment of NAABB, funded with a $49 million U.S. Department of Energy grant ($2.5 million to UA). The consortium is in the middle of a three-year study with the overarching objective to reduce the cost to produce a gallon of algae biofuel from the present $7 to $4. Ogden believes the price will have to drop to $3 a gallon before industry starts filling the tank with algae fuels.
The research is all about increasing algae concentration and finding the best way to separate the algae from water.
“We’re trying to make algae cells that can capture light more effectively so that they can get to a higher concentration faster. If you’re more concentrated, it doesn’t cost as much to separate,” Ogden said.
Scientists drift to three different separation methods, none that thrill Ogden – spinning centrifuge, flocculation – where chemicals get algae to drop to the bottom – or floating the algae.
“There’s not a way to do it quite right,” she said.
On top of the concentration and separation challenges, biologists during the course of mankind have not dedicated much research to algae.
“One of the things is understanding algal biology,” Ogden said. “Part of the problem is we don’t understand all their pathways. We don’t understand how the stuff is metabolized. We’re way behind what we need to know.”
Ogden believes jet aircraft, especially military, and train locomotives will be the ideal candidates for algae biofuels. Why not your car?
The Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt show which direction powering an automobile is heading.
“In 10 years, there will be more batteries in cars, but there will not be an electric jet,” Ogden said. “The Navy is putting out a call for proposals. The Air Force is talking to the National Science Foundation.”
Ogden envisions a future where biofuels entirely replace petroleum as a liquid fuel. This future would have many sources of biofuels, including algae. Ogden does not hazard a guess just how large a role algae can play.
Ogden came to the UA in 1992 from a post-doctoral fellowship at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“I’m a bioreactor-design person for making pharmaceuticals, getting rid of nasty chemicals and making biofuels. You need to figure out how to grow things to get rid of something or make something,” she said.
The UA role in NAABB involves a life-cycle assessment of algae, and growing algae at higher temperatures with fewer nutrients to minimize the need for phosphates.
Ogden’s role as the NAABB’s lead engineer revolves around asking scientists one question: “Are you sure that’s a really good idea?”
“I look at the whole system,” Ogden said. “It’s important to think of the system. That hasn’t been happening. People are in their own labs without thinking about how it effects the whole process.”
Ogden became the consortium’s lead engineer because of the breadth of her experience in biology, biological engineering and chemical engineering – a rare combination of expertise ideally suited for NAABB’s objective, said Jose Olivares, the consortium executive director.
“She is not shy in telling us where things need to go, but she is willing to listen to us to make common-interest decisions,” Olivares said. “We have to discuss problems and issues in a way that does not alienate the other party. She has a great disposition.”
Scientists have determined algae will work as jet fuel. Blended biofuel, including some algae, has powered a Honeywell UOP jet flight across the Pacific. Colorado State University in 2012 will test a jet engine entirely with algae fuel.
Ogden believes we’re still 10 years away from algae fuel on the market. Scientists have to figure out how to produce mass quantities of algae fuel, and big business has yet to fully embrace the concept.
“We’re not quite there yet,” Ogden said.