The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded a $1.3 million grant to a Cal Poly research team led by professors Tryg Lundquist in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and Corinne Lehr in the Chemistry Department.
The grant supports the work of the Algae Technology Group (ATG) to develop efficient recycling of water and nutrients in algal biofuels production.
ATG includes faculty and students from six departments, including Environmental Engineering, Chemistry, Biology, Animal Science, Food Science and Electrical Engineering.
The grant reflects the fact that the DOE hopes to significantly improve the sustainability of algae-based biofuels and accelerate technological breakthroughs. The ATG project will turn waste resources, such as those from municipal and agricultural wastewaters, as well as nutrients recycled from algae biomass processing into sustainable algal biofuels. The project will be carried out in experimental raceway ponds at the City of San Luis Obispo Water Reclamation Facility, a pilot facility that has been invited to join the U.S. Department of Energy National Algae Biofuel Testbed program.
According to Lundquist, investment in research on algae biofuels has gone from near zero in 2005 to hundreds of millions per year. “Renewable energy and recycling of water are necessary for a sustainable society,” he said, “but current technologies are too expensive for many communities.” The DOE research project could result in technology that has the ability to save Californians hundreds of millions of dollars in water recycling costs each year.
Since 2006, ATG has enabled dozens of undergraduates to participate each quarter in wastewater reclamation and biofuels research; many Cal Poly master’s degree students in various departments have also focused their theses on algae technology.
"I am so pleased by Cal Poly students," said Lundquist. "They take to research projects easily and seem to appreciate that every bit of data they generate helps this larger worldwide effort to domesticate algae into a biofuel crop."
Lundquist explained that photosynthetic algae are at the heart of the wastewater recycling process. “Like all plants, algae release oxygen while absorbing CO2 and nutrients,” he said. “Wastewater purification requires oxygen and the removal of nutrients, which are pollutants if they escape to waterways. Using sunlight energy, the algae are able to treat wastewater to meet California water recycling standards. After the cleaning process is complete the algae cells are harvested in settling tanks.”
In addition to removing pollutants in the wastewater, the algae are energy-efficient and produce renewable biofuel (biogas and oil). Renewable biofuel is made two ways: by anaerobically digesting the algae to biogas or by converting them to biodiesel in the lab.
“Our goal is to match the performance of conventional wastewater treatment facilities, but with greater sustainability and lower cost,” explained Lundquist. “ To accomplish this, our research focuses on optimization of wastewater treatment and the simultaneous production of oil-rich algae. Assuming a 10% market penetration in California, our technology has the potential to save ratepayers an expected $240 million per year and is suitable for other warm climate states, making this a model that can be replicated.
“In addition, we hope to make a large impact with the biofuel produced during our wastewater treatment. Across the nation, about 17% of US imported transportation fuel could be replaced with algae fuel, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). This is a huge amount that equals Congressional goals for ‘advanced biofuels’ production by 2022.
“Ultimately, we would like our research to help commercialize the use of algae in the wastewater recycling process and production of biofuel.”
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