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Research / Discovery

Hotbed of alternative fuel research

December 13, 2010

It could be said that Colorado State is growing colonies of researchers -- as well as algae -- in its exploration of alternative fuels. CSU's community of researchers is populated by the significant number of faculty devoted to the study of energy and the environment and through partnerships with alternative energy companies.

Tara Schumacher, a Ph.D. grad student in Ken Reardon’s lab, looks through a microscope surrounded by flasks of different algae strains.

We don't have to beg for data'

As a researcher at Colorado State University, Assistant Professor Tom Bradley expects to dig and dig – and dig some more – for his data. But it turns out measuring the environmental impacts of algae as a biofuel is easier when you have a legion of researchers backing you up. 

CSU is a hotbed of expertise on converting algae to biodiesel because of significant faculty research on energy and the environment. “We’re very lucky to be doing this work here at the University,” says Bradley. “Anywhere else, we’d have to beg for the data.” 

University, companies collaborate

Public-private partnerships on a national scale also have played a major role in alternative fuel research. In January, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that CSU; Solix, a privately held alternative energy company; and other collaborators would be part of a $49 million consortium coordinated through the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

The consortium, called the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts, is part of an $80 million investment in advanced biofuels research announced by Chu. The consortium is the only one funded by the U.S. Department of Energy that focuses solely on algae. 

Ensuring an easy transition to biofuels

Working on the DOE grant are CSU’s Anthony Marchese and Ken Reardon, Jud and Pat Harper Endowed Chair of Chemical and Biological Engineering, from the College of Engineering and Shawn Archibeque from the College of Agricultural Sciences. The three will investigate reuse of byproducts from the algae-to-oil process, properties of algae-produced fuels, and whether the alternative fuel can easily replace gasoline and petroleum diesel, says Marchese, who is leading the University’s portion of the grant. 

Jenna Bloxom, a student in a CSU program funded by the NSF to provide interdisciplinary biofuels training for doctoral students, works with cell cultures.

“The goal behind the consortium is to advance the current status of research and development into algae biofuels and really encompass the entire process of algae biofuels – from biology to cultivation at large scales to converting algae oil to biofuel and characterizing the fuels that you get,” Marchese says.

Breadth of research assignments

CSU researchers are responsible for about $1.25 million of the grant:

  • Archibeque will research whether the algae’s leftover biomass – after the oils have been extracted – could be used in animal feed.
  • Reardon will examine ways of converting that leftover biomass to another fuel such as ethanol or butanol.
  • Marchese’s expertise is fuel characterization – or ensuring that the fuels that are produced are usable. He also serves as a team leader for the entire consortium on fuel conversion.

“I’m looking at characterizing those fuels to make sure that they’re fit for purpose,” Marchese says. “We can’t expect the engine manufacturers to design engines that run specifically on algae. It’s more likely that we’ll need to produce fuels that have properties identical to gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.”

Research taps students

Marchese is conducting one of the first studies on the emissions produced from algae as a biofuel with fellow mechanical engineering Professor Azer Yalin. He adds that a minimum of two master’s students and one doctoral student will be working on the DOE project with him. 

Undergraduates are likely to be involved as well – two-thirds of the roughly 60 students typically working in the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab are undergraduate students, said Mac McGoldrick, program manager for the lab.

“These are often students from a variety of disciplines, not just engineering, and they’re learning from some of the best people in their fields,” McGoldrick says. "Dozens of undergraduates are involved in biofuels research projects across the University."

Biofuels in the Clean Energy Supercluster

Marchese, Reardon and Archibeque already work together as members of the University’s Clean Energy Supercluster, an internal University network of more than 150 researchers exploring topics related to energy and the environment.

Research into biofuels is an especially strong component of CSU’s Clean Energy Supercluster. A sample: 

  • Ken Reardon is the CSU liaison to a statewide collaboration to speed up commercialization of clean energy technological innovation and create new jobs in the New Energy Economy. He represents CSU in the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels, or C2B2, which is part of the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, a partnership between CSU, CU-Boulder, Colorado School of Mines and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • A team of professors at CSU are using a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to provide interdisciplinary biofuels training for doctoral students. The biofuels industry around the nation has grown so complex that the next generation of scientists needs to know all its angles – from the chemistry of making it to the economics of selling it.
  • Reardon directs this program along with a leadership team of Dan Bush, Chair of the biology department; Jan Leach, University Distinguished Professor of bioagricultural sciences and pest management; and Keith Paustian, professor of soil and crop sciences and senior research scientist in the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory. 
  • Cobalt Technologies this spring tapped Marchese and Reardon to perform engine testing with a gasoline-butanol blend made with the biobutanol from beetle-killed wood. Cobalt, a Mountain View, Calif., company is developing a drop-in replacement for petroleum and petrochemicals from beetle-affected lodgepole pine. Fuel testing has been performed at the EECL under the auspices of the newly formed Sustainable Bioenergy Development Center.

Contact: Emily Wilmsen