Can Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus be a world leader in developing an alternate fuel source for transportation?
Directors of its Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCati) lab believe that it can.
Right now, it's simply being called Arizona Crude.
Under a warm and sunny sky - the right conditions for algae to reproduce and thrive - more than 100 people, including Gov. Jan Brewer, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith and Dan Simon, president of Gilbert-based Heliae Technologies, attended Tuesday's dedication of Polytechnic's expanded AzCati center under the university's Light and Energy Department. The expansion includes about 80,000 gallons of algae inoculating and being screened in "harvesting pools" on a 2-acre site in front of the lab building.
Algae, which is an original source for carbon used in petroleum products, is being tested to see if it has a fast enough rate of producing oil from fatty acids to make its way toward bio-mass production for a green source of energy, and possibly serve as an alternative fuel source for cars in the future as rising gasoline prices continue to cause consumers pain at the pumps.
AzCati's expansion was made possible through persistent research and $4 million of funding received at the Algae Bio-Mass Organization's Conference in Phoenix last year. Half of the expansion costs were made possible through Science Foundation of Arizona funds supported by Brewer and half through Gilbert-based Heliae Technologies, which is working to design an industrial process that starts with the creation of high-fat strains of algae and ends with the commercial production of jet fuel and other products.
Gathering samples of algae from all over the world, but mostly the southwestern United States, the review process to extract oil from it all begins with a single cell. If the strains of algae have a high growth rate, are high in oil content and low in nutrients, they likely would be successful to advance to bio-mass petroleum production,
"Algae is found in just about everything - in the air with dust particles, pools, soil, and in sandstone rocks below the surface," said Milton Sommerfeld, co-director of the AzCati lab. "There's no difficulty in finding raw material with algae. Our goal is to be the last step before commercialization."
Tubes and flasks filled with different-colored algae cultures, ranging from the murky dark color of a micro-brew beer to the light golden color of a domestic beer, crowd one room of the AzCati lab where they are screened for progression in the production process. Another room of larger flasks contains stronger strains. If the algae has a high growth rate of producing oil inside the lab, it moves to the pools outdoors where it continues to grow before it is processed into fuel inside large-scale reactors.
"If it doesn't reach the pools, it's not good algae," said Tom Dempster, manager for the AzCati lab. "It's useless unless you can grow it in an outside condition."
Once oil is separated from the algae, it is fairly straightforward to convert the oil to biodiesel through a chemical process known as transesterification.
Although making fuel from algae is not a new concept for alternative fuel sources, as it was first conceived during the Middle East's oil embargo on the United States in the late 1970s, AzCati plans to cement future partners into its ecosystem to advance the project. It currently has about 50 worldwide partners in the research and development project as well as numerous local organizations.
For now, the trick is developing integrated processes to grow and refine algae products on an industrial scale and lowering production costs.
Right now, to produce a gallon of crude oil from algae costs $12 to $20, Sommerfeld said.
"We have to get costs down, and that's what we have to look at as well," Sommerfeld said. "We have to be competitive and get the costs down. What does gasoline cost now - $3.50 to $4 a gallon?"
During AzCati's expansion dedication ceremonies, Heliae president Dan Simon called for the state's support of House Bills 2225 and 2226, which would be the last steps in commercializing algae and allowing it to be treated as an agricultural product.
Brewer, riding around on a golf cart during a tour of the harvesting pool area with Sommerfeld, said, "We hope that the rest of the country would grasp what's going on here. AzCati is a hub of algae-based research in reducing America's reliance on fossil fuels, and the need for seed investment is critical. I hope to see the end result of this."
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