Algae to Oil

Mar 252007
Authors: Brian Park

In the near future, automobiles could be running off fuel derived from pond scum – if research by CSU scientists and students stays the course, that is.

The university has teamed up with Solix Biofuels, a Boulder-based energy startup company and New Belgium Brewing Co., to cultivate technology that enables algae to develop into what’s called “bio-crude.” The end product is then transported to a refinery where it is transformed into biodiesel, an alternative fuel source to gasoline.

“This technology is helping two things – first is energy independence, as the amount of oil imported into this country will decrease and we won’t have to buy it from problematic areas like the Middle East,” Doug Henston, CEO of Solix Biofuels said. “The second one is climate change.”

The algae are grown in photo-bioreactors, which are 70-feet-long and 8-feet-wide, while floating in liquid. The organisms are photosynthetic, meaning sunlight, water and carbon dioxide is needed to grow. If the process works correctly, the algae are converted into lipids, which are natural fats and oils. The oil is then removed to begin the process of turning it into biodiesel.

“The advantage of algae is two-fold it is a single-celled organism, which makes it much more efficient and faster growing,” Bryan Willson, director of CSU’s Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory said. “And it yields much more than an acre of soy or canola, thus it has high productivity and high yield.”

Currently, the majority of the United States’ biodiesel is created from soy oil, which is primarily a food product. And the price of soy oil is increasing, establishing a problem for biodiesel producers, Henston said.

Algae are a powerful bio-crude source, as the pond scum is 100 to 200 times more potent than soy oil. This means algae can produce 10,000 biodiesel gallons per acre, per year, while soy oil only yields 50 gallons per acre, per year, according to Henston.

The process requires access to carbon dioxide, so New Belgium Brewing Co. is donating its emissions from the fermentation of beer brewing, which emits the carbon dioxide. Larger photo-bioreactors measuring 350-foot-long and 40-foot-wide will be built at the brewery so the carbon dioxide can be directly pumped into the algae product.

“Everything about the project is appealing,” Simpson said. “It’s a local company, CSU is involved, and a new green environmental technology is being looked into.”

“It’s fun to push the envelope,” he added.

The algae-to-biodiesel challenge is taking place at CSU’s Engines and Energy Conservation Laboratory, located at the old Fort Collins power plant on College Avenue, where the road crosses the Cache La Poudre River.

“We chose to team up with CSU because of their 21st Century focus on renewable energies and their expertise in mechanical engineering and the agricultural sciences,” Henston said.

“The algae project just sounded like something I really wanted to be a part of,” said Kristina Weyer, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at CSU, who helps design the photo-bioreactors.

Weyer works on temperature control, so the algae do not get too hot or cold.

“I basically moved out here (Fort Collins) to become of part of this,” Weyer said. “There is so much going on out here involving renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

Staff writer Brian Park can be reached at

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