Hatcher Team Creates New Process To Boost Biofuel Production From Algae

Just when you’re sure that algae are a good source of biodiesel fuel, along comes a new scheme to wring even more alternative energy from the green scum.

During the past five years, researchers at Old Dominion have devised ways to cultivate and harvest microscopic algae, and then to convert them into a biodiesel fuel by a proprietary one-step process. Now they have discovered another process - which they also hope to patent - that produces a versatile, algae-based liquid similar to crude oil.

Patrick Hatcher, the ODU Batten Endowed Chair in Physical Sciences and the executive director of the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium (VCERC), said in August that this new oil he and collaborators are producing can be refined into gasoline and jet fuel, as well as diesel fuel.

Furthermore, Hatcher said the new oil is derived from a biopolymer in the algal cell wall, and not from the fatty lipids that are extracted for biodiesel fuel. In other words, from the same batch of algae, the researchers can extract a vegetable oil-like biodiesel fuel as well as another oily substance that is quite different.

“It’s a twofer, actually a ‘threefer,’” Hatcher said, referring to the way the one sample of algae can now turn out two types of liquid fuels, as well as a protein-rich byproduct that can be used as animal feed.

The research team has begun conversations with U.S. Department of Defense officials, who are eager to find alternative and sustainable sources of “green” fuels, including the jet fuel that could be refined from the versatile oil. “They were very excited by what we had to tell them,” Hatcher said.