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Scientists and engineers from Old Dominion University, with a little help from a crane, lifted three algae cultivation tanks to a rooftop of the Virginia Initiative Plant (VIP) wastewater treatment facility near campus on Thursday, Dec. 6, to formally begin a collaboration that promises to be very environmentally friendly.

Faculty members and graduate students from the College of Sciences and the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology are working on a pilot project of the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium (VCERC) to produce biodiesel fuel from algae.

The researchers will use VIP, which is operated by the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, as a testing ground for a possible "win-win" process in which algal growth accomplishes wastewater pollution remediation while also producing biomass for biodiesel production.

Algae will be grown in treated wastewater that will flow through the rooftop tanks. As they grow, the algae take in nutrients from the water that otherwise would be discharged into the Elizabeth River. This amounts to an extra scrubbing of the wastewater to make it better for the environment.

The microscopic algae crop will be dried and converted to biodiesel by means of a proprietary reactor developed by ODU scientists. Preliminary tests of the process in the fall of 2007 (using algae that grew naturally) produced algal-based biodiesel fuel that has been used to power the engine of a remote-controlled vehicle. This accomplishment of the ODU project team has been the subject of several local media reports and one that will be broadcast in January on the national Science Channel.

Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine keeps a vial of the algae-biodiesel fuel produced at ODU on his office desk in Richmond. State legislators got VCERC started with a $1.5 million appropriation early in 2007.

Gary Schafran, professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, directed the construction of the cultivation tanks and their installation at VIP on Thursday. He said the rooftop algae farm should be operational before the end of the year.

Altogether, about a dozen ODU researchers donned hard hats to help move the tanks to the rooftop. They included Margaret Mulholland, associate professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences; Harold Marshall, Morgan Professor emeritus and eminent scholar of biological sciences, and Andrew Gordon, professor of biological sciences. These scientists are involved in various experiments to maximize algae growth rates and to keep the program focused on algae species that are especially good for algae-biodiesel production.

Patrick G. Hatcher, ODU's Batten Endowed Chair in Physical Sciences and director of the College of Sciences Major Instrumentation Cluster (COSMIC), is executive director of VCERC and Aron Stubbins, an ODU research assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is assistant director. Seven other institutions in Virginia are part of the consortium.

Hatcher, who also heads the algae-biodiesel project, was in Washington, D.C., on Thursday and missed the installation of the cultivation tanks at VIP.

ODU researchers also are participating in a separate VCERC project to assess the feasibility of electricity generation by wind turbines off the coast of Virginia. They include Larry Atkinson, the Samuel A. and Fay M. Slover Professor of Oceanography; Shirshak Dhali, professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and David Basco, professor of civil engineering and director of ODU's Coastal Engineering Center.

This article was posted on: December 6, 2007

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