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Nanofarming Offers a Kinder, Gentler Way to Get Biofuel from Algae

One barrier to cost-competitive biofuel from algae is about to fall, and we may have nanofarming to thank for that.  The new technology uses tiny nanoparticles to absorb free fatty acids from living microalgae. It is being developed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames National Laboratory and Iowa State University, in partnership with biofuel specialist Catilin, Inc.

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In conventional biofuel production, algae are harvested and killed in order to extract their oil.  It’s not a very efficient process — sort of like uprooting a tree and stripping off the apples to make cider.  By coaxing out the oil on a molecular level, nanofarming enables algae to give up their product while continuing to grow.  Add Catilin’s non-toxic biofuel catalyst to the mix, and you have the makings of a more sustainable and cost-competitive biofuel – with some extra benefits, too.

Algae and Nanofarming

The tiny particles developed by Ames and Iowa state are described as surface-functionalized mesoporous nanoparticles, aka incredibly tiny sponges.  The research team headed by Dr. Victor Shang-Yi Lin has fine tuned both the surface and pores of the particles, to make them absorb the free fatty acids used in biofuel production.

Alage Biofuel and Non-Toxic Catalysts

Dr. Lin is also a principal in Catilin, Inc., which has developed a non-toxic catalyst called T300 to convert the fatty acids to biofuel.  T300 is recyclable and it would replace the conventional biofuel catalyst sodium methylate, a salt that kills human nerve cells.  According to Catilin, T300 could shave up to 19 cents per gallon off the cost of conventional biodiesel production.

Algae Biofuel With Benefits

Biofuel production yields huge quantities of glycerin as a by-product, and Catilin claims that the glycerin byproduct of T300 is a high quality technical grade.  That could potentially add enormous value to algae biofuel production.  Currently, much crude glycerin is incinerated as waste, though some high grade glycerin is used in cosmetics, soaps, and other products.  That could be on the verge of changing, as researchers are developing more ways to recycle glycerin including hydrogen gas, cattle feed, non-toxic antifreeze, ethanol, methanol, and even a medium for growing more algae.

Image: Green algae by derekkeats on flickr.com.


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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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