U, Met. Council aim to turn algae into fuel

Liz Riggs

The University and the Metropolitan Council recently partnered to explore whether the large amounts of algae that come through the council’s wastewater treatment plants could one day be used as a fuel source for metro buses.

Beginning a little more than a year ago, the council and the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment at the University discussed specific areas where the two might be able to collaborate.

Dick Hemmingsen, director of IREE, said many concepts surfaced while the two parties were in informal talks, but the algae project was one that stood out.

“It’s really sort of an intriguing idea,” Hemmingsen said. “Obviously the potential is pretty significant if this has the (possibility) to make commercial and technological sense.”

Paul Chen, a senior research associate and program director for the Center for Biorefining at the University has been involved in the research side of the project since the council and the University each invested $40,000 in initial funding earlier this year.

The concept of harvesting algae as a potential biofuel is not a new one, he said.

In 1979, the Department of Energy began a 16-year study on the subject, which ultimately identified some 20 algae species with high oil contents.

Chen said a typical strain of algae might have 4 percent oil content, while these 20 “super” strains had oil contents ranging from 20 percent to 60 percent.

At the time the Department of Energy study was completed, it was concluded that mass production was not economically feasible, Chen said.

Now, given the current energy crisis and the high price of crude oil, there’s a renewed interest in the idea.

Algae can have more than 100 times the yield per unit of soybeans, which Chen said “right now, is almost the only source for biodiesel commercially.”

Roger Ruan, who manages the project at the University, is working with several research assistants to find a strain of algae that grows quickly in wastewater and produces lots of oil.

Bob Polta, research and development manager at Metropolitan Council Environmental Services, said the project is geared toward algae growth in wastewater conditions specifically.

“The goal here is to see if algae with high oil content will grow in our effluent,” Polta said.

In addition to potentially creating a new source of bio-oils, the process of growing algae in treated effluent could help lower carbon dioxide emissions from the wastewater treatment process – an important step in controlling greenhouse gases.

Polta said such a measure could help the council’s wastewater plants keep up with stricter environmental regulations in the future.

The research is addressing two problems simultaneously, Chen said.

Future Funding

According to IREE, the current funding for the algae project will run out at the end of this year.

The Metropolitan Council has already requested nearly $1 million from the state to fund continued research on a larger scale.

At this point, it’s not clear whether the additional funding will be included in Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 2008 legislative requests, but Metropolitan Council spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge said the council is confident about the project’s future.

“I think the council is going to remain pretty hopeful about continued funding,” she said.

Polta said at this point, the council has had discussions with other potential funders, but that to his knowledge, they had not yet received a firm commitment from anyone.

“Without any substantial additional funding, it’s going to move along at a very slow pace,” Polta said.