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ODU Researchers Working with Private Company to Develop Algae Harvesting System

Aron Stubbins

ACENT Laboratories, a company based in New York, has joined with researchers at Old Dominion University to win federal development funds for a new system by which algae is harvested and dewatered so it can be used to produce biofuels.

ACENT and ODU scientists and engineers working with the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium (VCERC) did preliminary testing of a harvesting and dewatering concept earlier this year with startup funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The work, some of which was done at ODU's experimental algae-pond facility near Hopewell, Va., showed that the concept could be four times more efficient than current technologies, said the project leaders.

Based on the successful Phase 1 results, DOE awarded a Phase 2 Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant for $750,000 to the project in October. ODU's share of the grant is $150,000.

"The system addresses one of the critical process steps required to make algal biofuels economically attractive," said Randy Voland, the ACENT vice president. The system will be refined and increased in scale in Phase 2, using lessons learned from Phase 1. Another goal of the researchers, Voland said, is "integration of the harvesting system into the end-to-end algal biodiesel production process."

ACENT was founded in 2007 to serve the aerospace and clean energy technology industries. It has provided engineering services and applied technology/product development to a wide variety of customers, including the U.S. Air Force, NASA, public and private corporations, and DOE. Its headquarters are on Long Island and it also has offices in Florida and Virginia.

The DOE grant boosts an algae-to-biodiesel initiative that began in 2007 when the General Assembly funded VCERC and headquartered it at ODU. Patrick Hatcher, ODU's Batten Endowed Chair in Physical Sciences, was named the consortium's executive director and the leader of the algae biomass project.

VCERC, which has ongoing projects on several alternative-energy fronts, also includes scientists and engineers from Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Virginia Tech Advanced Research Institute, James Madison University, Norfolk State University, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Virginia and Hampton University.

Aron Stubbins, a research assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at ODU and assistant director of VCERC, is the team leader for ODU's involvement in the Phase 2 project. He will be responsible for coordination between ODU and ACENT. The company will conduct the bulk of the research at their new laboratories in Hampton.

ACENT approached ODU researchers more than a year ago after seeing news reports about the VCERC algae-to-biodiesel project. "They had a concept in mind, and we could help them develop it," Hatcher said. The process involves a relatively simple way to extract the slimy, microscopic algae from water, but the developers declined to describe the concept in detail.

Stubbins noted that the current market value of an efficient harvesting and dewatering system is potentially very high because of recent interest in the idea of producing alternative fuels from algae.

Exxon announced this past summer that it would invest $600 million in a project launched together with a California firm, Synthetic Genomics, to convert algae into fuel.

This fall, ODU agreed to join a group of universities and corporations, led by the upstart Planktonix Corp. of North Carolina, that is seeking federal stimulus funds to build a $50 million algae farm and biodiesel production plant on land owned by the city of Virginia Beach. Hatcher said even if this group does not receive stimulus money for the project, he will continue efforts to establish an algae-growing facility in Hampton Roads that is larger than the one-acre pond that ODU/VCERC now operates near Hopewell.

The work of the algae-to-biodiesel team has included researching algal growth in municipal wastewater and in the presence of carbon dioxide gases. Algal production under these conditions can remove pollutants from the wastewater and sequester carbon dioxide, while at the same time producing bumper crops of the oil-rich algae. The researchers also have looked into the production of fertilizer from algal by-products of the biodiesel conversion process.

"The project has three parts," Stubbins explained. "The first is growing favorable algae species with consistency, and we've established we can do that. The second is the harvesting and dewatering to concentrate the algae. This is the focus of the current project. The third is conversion of the dried algae to fuel, and perhaps other useful products."

ODU is awaiting the release of approximately $700,000 in federal funds that were earmarked in the spring for the purchase of a new conversion reactor that will allow the VCERC biodiesel initiative to grow dramatically in scale. With the reactor they have now, Hatcher and his team have been able to make algal biodiesel at a rate of only a few ounces a day.

Here are the key members of the ODU research team and the role of each in the latest DOE project:

• Stubbins, in addition to coordination duties, will oversee experiments to determine the algal and physicochemical criteria that influence harvest efficiency.

• Hatcher will oversee the biochemical characterization of harvested algae and assessment of their fuel yield.

• Gary Schafran, professor of civil and environmental engineering, will direct experiments with different coagulants and other additives to determine which ones are best for harvesting. He also will determine surface-charge properties of algae and how this relates to harvest efficiency.

• Andrew Gordon, professor of biological sciences, will participate in experiments related to the growth and identification of algae.

• Harold Marshall, Morgan Professor Emeritus and Eminent Scholar in biological sciences, will lend his expertise in algal identification.

This article was posted on: November 16, 2009

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