Research being done at New Mexico State University on the production of algae-based biofuels would become increasingly important to New Mexico's - and the nation's - economic prosperity, if U.S. Sen. Tom Udall has his way. Udall visited the campus Aug. 9 to announce he will soon introduce legislation in the Senate to ensure a more level playing field for the algal biofuels industry.

Joining Udall at the news conference were NMSU President Barbara Couture; Pete Lammers, NMSU research professor and the technical director of the university's Algal Bioenergy Program; Jim Peach, Regents Professor of Economics; and Denise Gitsham, director of corporate affairs and legislative counsel for Sapphire Energy, Inc., owner of a large biorefinery in Columbus, N.M.

The U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 established a production target of 36 billion gallons of advanced biofuels by 2022, with separate volume requirements for each category of renewable fuel. It also required that life cycle analyses be used to ensure that each renewable fuel emits less greenhouse gas than the petroleum it replaces.

Udall believes the renewable fuel standards established by that law go a long way toward promoting U.S. energy security through domestic production of fossil fuel alternatives. In the current version, however, mandated targets for alternative fuel production favor corn-based and cellulosic ethanol over algae-based and other "advanced" biofuels.

He expressed his belief that Congress should promote research and development of alternative energy sources, but that the market should determine the balance among the various alternatives. The legislation that he and Public Works Committee colleague Larry Crapo of Idaho plan to introduce will mandate parity for algae and other non-cellulosic advanced biofuels, in terms of production requirements and subsidies under the renewable fuel standards. Comparable bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives.

Udall chose NMSU as the site for his announcement because of the university's established commitment to algal biofuel research. NMSU recently moved into algae bio-oil production mode with a new 4,000-liter Solix BioSystems algal photobioreactor, which joined four smaller algae "raceways" at the Fabian Garcia Science Center in Las Cruces. The university is a member of the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts consortium, established through $49 million in grants from the Department of Energy to explore all aspects of algal biofuel production, harvesting, extraction and upgrading to diesel and jet fuels.

Prior to the news conference, Udall was greeted by NMSU President Barbara Couture at the science center. He then met with a group that included other NMSU administrators, New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte, and faculty and staff members involved in algal research. They showed him the new algal photobioreactor, as well as an automated biodiesel processor, and discussed various ways NMSU's algal technology might be integrated into dairy and livestock production facilities, or even inland shrimp farming.

Pete Lammers is an NMSU research professor and the technical director of the university's Algal Bioenergy Program. In his presentation, he stressed the importance of algae research in benefiting humankind. He foresees a situation in the not-too-distant future where converting algae into fuel will not only fill a significant portion of the nation's energy needs, but will also capture value from waste streams to create a "cradle-to-cradle" approach to industrial ecology. For example, dairy farm waste is currently considered to be an environmental threat, but it is rich in nutrients that algae thrive on. Using that waste to feed algae would keep it out of the water system and put it to productive use while lowering fuel production costs.

Lammers sees the current push to develop renewable fuels to blend with traditional petroleum products as a turning point in global energy policy, and he believes algae can play a key role.