Arizona is famous (or infamous) for its dry, desert climate, and abundance of sun and land. This also makes it a prime location for farming algae. Additionally, because of the state’s coal-fired power plants, there is currently a mass quantity of carbon dioxide that will help enhance algae growth and production.
Algae production, as opposed to some biofuels, has a higher yield from fewer resources, and it can be farmed on non-potable land (unlike corn used for ethanol). Scientists have known for some time that algae are rich in lipids and oils that can be extracted and converted to fuel. ASU researchers have discovered certain algal strains that are particularly rich in oils and have built more efficient bioreactors to harvest those strains. The bioreactors are filled with water, nutrients, and algae; when exposed to the sun, algae growth is accelerated. These bioreactors can be found on a variety of buildings on both the Tempe and Polytechnic campuses along with the Intel Ocotillo facility in Chandler. ASU researchers have also begun developing methods to use algae for biodiesel and jet biofuel.
ASU’s AzCati facility and Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology (LARB) have received several million dollars in grants from a variety of sources including Science Foundation Arizona, Heliae Development, and the Department of Energy.
In 2009, the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) rated Phoenix, AZ as the top potential place for algal biofuel production in the United States.
Last year’s Algal Biomass Summit (ABO) drew about 800 of the world’s leading industry representatives and energy scientists to showcase algal research right in the prominent algal-fuel research hub that is Phoenix.
ASU’s Bruce Rittman, director of the Center of Environmental Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute says the technology needed to mass-produce algae technology is about 4 or 5 years away, but the U.S. infrastructure required to make algae a major fuel source is about 15 to 20 years away. However, Rittman notes that when the U.S. is finally poised to begin using algae as a major fuel source, Arizona will reap great benefits.
Rittman also says, “There is a growing realization in this country and around the world of the importance of sustainability. We have to shift away from fossil fuels, especially petroleum. There are skeptics who say biofuels are too expensive, but when you factor in things like climate change and the eventual cost of that, we don’t look expensive at all.”
What Rittman draws attention to is the necessity for continued research and development so that researchers are able to find ways to drop the current cost of algae biofuel from $20 per gallon to $4 or $5 per gallon. Costs alone are not isolated to production. If we factor in military pursuits, costs of human lives, and the various effects on climate and the environment, the cost of oil is much higher than often reported, and these factors should be reflected in comparisons because those externalities come at a price.
ASU researchers continue to develop new technology and methodologies for algal biofuel. Algae biofuel production offers a sustainable, renewable energy source with great potential, and Arizona is the prime locale in which to produce it.
Learn more about ASU’s algae research facilities, researchers, and presence at the upcoming ABO Summit in Minneapolis, MN.