Algae have been shown to be a likely prospect for biofuel production for myriad reasons, as we explored in an article highlighting algae production and its relationship to the burgeoning biofuel industry. One of the primary benefits of algae is their ability to grow in a variety of conditions so long as sunlight, water, and a nutrient source such as nitrogen, phosphorus, or carbon dioxide are present.
Researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology have already demonstrated the effectiveness of growing algae in wastewater, which makes algae doubly helpful in that it can clean contaminated water while at the same time producing a feedstock for renewable fuel. Now, research being conducted by a team of chemical engineers at the University of Arkansas has found yet another application for algae that allows it to deliver yet another “one-two punch” for the environment.
The team at the University of Arkansas has improved on a method that utilizes nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich creek water to produce algae, a process which grows the algae while simultaneously improving water quality in the contaminated stream way. Creek water is run over what the researchers call “raceways”—long troughs containing screens or carpet on which the algae can grow. High concentrations of carbon dioxide are then delivered to the algae through hollow fiber membranes, further enhancing growth.
The process devised by the University of Arkansas researchers is highly productive, allowing a fresh harvest of algae every five to eight days. The algae is vacuumed or scraped off the screens, dried, then ground into a fine powder which allows for the extraction of carbohydrates from the plant cells. The carbohydrates are treated with acids and heated to convert them into simple, natural sugars which can then be fermented by a special, more efficient process developed by one of the team’s doctoral students. The fermentation process, called electrodeionization, breaks down the sugars into butyric, lactic, and acetic acids, and the primary benefit of this new process is that it rapidly separates the acids and isolates butyric acid, the acid needed for the production of butanol—algal biofuel.
The principle behind this new production technique is very similar to that behind the RIT research mentioned earlier: take dirty water, clean it up with algae, and in the process produce a raw feedstock that has the potential for biofuel production. Right about now, Mother Earth must be pretty darn happy with one of her smallest, simplest creations.
In what other kinds of applications might algae be dually beneficial? Can you think of other instances where algae might be used to treat an environmental problem yet still be harvested for biofuel?
News Article: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110301200638.htm
Source Articles: http://planetforward.org/idea/invest-in-algae-and-butanol-energy-research/
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