USU research turns algae and animal waste into the fuel of the future

Time to park your car – permanently. And air conditioning for your home? Forget it. The world’s fossil fuel resources are completely exhausted. Oil fields are dry, coal mines are stripped, and skyrocketing demand for natural gas has made it a luxury only the super-rich can afford. In a future world desperate for energy, yet polluted by unchecked coal and petroleum use, alternative fuels have entered center stage as a solution.

Animal waste is used to power cities and heat homes; cars run on diesel fuel derived from plants; and oil from fast food fryers is fueling trucking businesses. And all these new energy sources are improving the environment.

Today, a world run by renewable energy might still seem far off. The gravity of the energy crisis and sustainable remedies seem rife with hyperbole. But a major energy crisis is not only possible; it is looming in the decades ahead unless our consumption habits change. Conscious of this global challenge, researchers at Utah State University are developing innovative alternatives to oil, coal and other carbon-based energy sources.

“We have an enormous demand for energy, and that demand is increasing rapidly,” says Lance Seefeldt, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at USU. “Many scientists think this is the biggest scientific and technological challenge facing us today.”

The issue, Seefeldt says, is that the world has grown far too fond of traditional fuel sources. And why not? Oil, coal and other fossil fuels – which account for 86 percent of all commercial energy use – are dense, which means they’re packed with plenty of power. Some of the world’s most lucrative and influential industries are based on the procurement and distribution of these resources.

The problem, however, is that fossil fuels are finite, and many scientists believe about one-half of the world’s ever-shrinking supply is already depleted. Energy use is forecasted to triple over the next 100 years, which will only worsen the situation, including rising costs, political tensions and environmental hazards that have become associated with non-renewable fuels.

“We can’t do this forever,” says Seefeldt, who co-chairs USU’s executive committee for biofuels research and development along with Conly Hansen (nutrition and food sciences), Ron Sims (biological and irrigation engineering), and Byard Wood (mechanical and aerospace engineering).

In response to this challenge, a plethora of short-term solutions have been developed, including drilling oil from coastlines, creating wind and solar power fields, and deriving ethanol from plant crops to power combustion engines.

Still, scientists believe that major shifts in our energy habits must be adopted into the mainstream within the next few decades to avoid a worldwide energy meltdown. The environment, as well as the world’s political and economic fabric, depends on relatively quick adjustments.

“If we continue business as usual, it’s starting to look like we could experience a downturn in the global domestic product of as much as 20 percent, or about $6 trillion worldwide,” Seefeldt says. “That would be the equivalent of what happened in the Great Depression in the 1930s, so there’s definitely an incentive to find new ways to produce energy.”

To address these issues, USU has established a major biofuels initiative to develop new energy sources. Funded by a $6 million grant from the Utah Science, Technology and Research (USTAR) Economic Development Initiative (see sidebar), USU aims to establish a sustainable multi-disciplinary research team that will facilitate all areas of biofuel development. Challenges to be met include developing new biomass feed stocks, developing highly efficient feedstock production units, maximizing product yields, and processing the products into commercial biofuels and other commercial products.

USU’s biofuels team is aggressively pursuing renewable energy on several fronts, but is specifically focusing resources on two areas: creating biodiesel and animal-derived methane. The former requires a photosynthetic organism, and the latter just needs animal waste. These carbon-free fuels reduce greenhouse emissions, thought to be harmful to the environment. One notable consequence of increasing emissions in Utah is the infamous, health-threatening inversion, which occurs when cooler valley air – and pollution – is trapped below warmer air. “If we used biodiesel and methane today in Utah, we would have no inversion – just fog,” Seefeldt says.

Biodiesel represents one of the most promising forms of renewable energy that harnesses the greatest energy producer in the solar system–the sun–which produces energy that is renewable and carbon-free, a key to improving the environment. In some areas of the world, ethanol-based biofuels are already providing a major source of energy.

USU researchers know that creating biodiesel from crops like algae, however, is far more effective than producing alcohol-based fuels from cash crops of corn and sugarcane, which is what is being used now. First, people and animals do not eat algae, and it can be grown in harsh environments, including Utah’s deserts. Second, sustaining an algae crop is much easier than cultivating acres of soy or canola. USU researchers envision large, climate-controlled buildings where algae is grown on vertical curtains, with sunlight funneled to them via fiber optic cables, a process Wood is working to perfect (see page 24).

Conly Hansen, professor in the department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at USU, has led research on animal-derived methane and has created an energy reactor that converts unwanted animal waste into methane fuel and the by-products, CO2 and nutrient concentrate, which are essential to growing plants, such as algae.

USU’s biofuels team is aggressively pursuing renewable energy on several fronts, but is specifically focusing resources on two areas: creating biodiesel and animal-deprived methane. The former requires a photosynthetic organism, and latter just needs animal waste. These carbon-free fuels reduce greenhouse emissions, which are thought to be harmful to the environment. – Conly Hansen

Hansen’s company, Andigen, creates induced blanket reactors (IBRs) that are capable of converting animal waste into electricity. This new technology is capable of converting the waste from a typical 1,000-cow dairy into enough electricity for more than 100 homes. Compared to current waste management techniques, Hansen’s IBR is more reliable and efficient.

“Andigen is part of a system. Without the involvement of excellent people and companies, Andigen would not be able to benefit as many people as it does today,” said Hansen.

“There are several options for solving the world’s energy problem, but at this point, nothing is realistically viable for long-term use. We are working to change that,” Seefeldt says.

USU researchers are facing this challenge head on with their innovative research.