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Researchers hope to bring algae biofuels to market


What will it take to make algae biofuels commercially viable? That's a question Ohio University researchers are helping to answer, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Ohio-based Univenture/Algaeventure Systems received a $5.9 million grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E) for advanced research on harvesting, dewatering and drying algae. The cost of this process is considered one of the largest barriers to taking algae-derived products, including biofuel, to market. More than half a million dollars from the grant will go to Ohio University for its role in supporting the research.

"OU wants to be a center of excellence for algae research and Algaeventure wants to be the go-to company for that," said Ben Stuart, director of Ohio University's Biofuels Research Lab, which has signed a collaborative agreement with Algaeventure Systems. "Our job is to do some performance evaluations and help develop the membrane systems."

Specifically, Algaeventure Systems has developed a way to extract water and harvest algae that reduces energy consumption by more than 90 percent over the previous method, which used energy-hogging centrifuges to extract the water. The new method uses capillary action, much like that of a paper towel absorbing water. 

"Our intent is to verify Algaeventure's claim of a greater than 90 percent reduction in operating costs," Stuart said.

A working prototype of the technology does exist. "We want to take this from an active prototype that has a lot of interest and is functional to something that's commercial scale and ready to be delivered," Stuart said, adding that they hope to have the technology ready for licensing and manufacturing in two years.

Stuart points out that there are many commercial applications for algae, like animal feed, pharmaceuticals and the plant-based bio-plastic packaging materials that Univenture produces. Algae is receiving increasing attention and funding for its potential as a biofuel as annual oil yields from algae can be 50-250 times the yield from corn or soy.

ARPA-E was created to support high risk, high reward energy research that addresses climate change and energy security. It received a boost in funding with the 2009 federal stimulus package.

"It's a research project, but there's a strong emphasis on commercialization," Stuart said, "and maybe getting some jobs out of this as well."