Xcel Energy rescues algae biofuel project

The company gave $150,000 to research studying the use of algae as a biofuel.

Betsy Graca

It’s been more than a year since University researchers and the Metropolitan Council began studying the use of algae as a sustainable biofuel and there had been a fear of lacking funds.

However, Xcel Energy recently provided a $150,000 gift to the research, allowing an expansion on the pre-existing project.

Dick Hemmingsen, director of the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment – a collaborator on the project – said the research was very in need of funding in order to keep the project moving forward.

“It’s a great example of a good partner in Xcel Energy,” he said. “This particular gift targeted at this really important and timely need.”

Jim Turnure, environmental policy manager for Xcel Energy, said Xcel was interested in the multiple environmental benefits the project could address.

“The major themes that we’re putting together are projects that combine environmental leadership and technological innovation,” he said.

Currently, Xcel Energy has selected five projects addressing renewable energy in a $4.5 million Renewable Development Fund that dates back to the 1990s.

Robert Elde, dean of College of Biological Sciences, said the gift from Xcel Energy allows both the project to expand the team and the algae-to-biofuels research to move to the next level – from the bench to pilot-scale experiments.

Stephen Peichel, president of Applied Environmental Solutions, said he was initially pleased with the research.

“It sends the message to the students and the clubs like ours that the campus is continuing its pathway of supporting these environmental issues,” he said. “It sends the message that the ‘U’ is going to lead the environmental sector.”

While the research behind turning algae into a biofuel began more than 20 years ago, the University is exploring the use of a contained system, called bioreactors, rather than outdoor ponds that require certain climates.

Throughout the process of photosynthesis, plants consume carbon dioxide. By making fuel from plants that have been growing recently, the plants are taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, Elde said.

As the fuel that’s burning goes out into the atmosphere, there’s no net increase of carbon released to the atmosphere when using plant-based biofuels.

Elde said algae have become an especially attractive resource because they don’t require large amounts of water for irrigation or extreme use of land as corn-based ethanol does.

The current methods by which corn-based ethanol is made requires a lot of fossil fuel inputs to grow, harvest and fertilize the crop, Elde said.

There is an increasing realization that corn-based ethanol and soybean-based bio-diesel are not the final issue, he said.

“They’re a great demonstration that you can make fuel from plants,” he said. “But we have to explore a lot of other alternatives.”

Elde said it’s difficult to predict how long it will take for the pilot-scale experiments to move to full commercial production.

Because algae has become a buzz word in the renewable energy community, it’s become very competitive to attract federal and industrial funding, Elde said. The gift from Xcel will allow the team to accelerate its work and further attract that funding.

“(It’s) all kind of money dependent. It’s time dependent, but it’s also how many people can be employed to work on the project,” he said. “The more we can put into the project, the sooner it will be commercially possible.”