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Researchers at the Texas AgriLife Mariculture Research Center in Corpus Christi are looking at producing biomass from new varieties of microalgae and prospects of a greener fuel source in the years ahead.
New studies look at different levels of nutrition, he says, because nutrition is a major component of the cost of large scale microalgae production. The idea is to produce microalgae with the right combination of nutrients and environmental variables to make biofuel production cost effective.
"We can control the environment in the bioreactors inside the Robstown lab, but we cannot control the weather outside, so the idea is to develop a model that will allow us to better manage those systems outside of a controlled environment," he added.
In the outdoor systems like the raceways, researchers have been working on various species of algae that will grow better and faster.
"One of the things we are doing is working on a combination of species to get better stability in our production of microalgae. We are hoping to develop models that will allow us to conduct larger scale production models," he said.
According to researchers, the main advantages of microalgae production, particularly in salt water, is to avoid competing with urban areas, agriculture and other industry for use of fresh water. Fernandez says another advantage is that growing microalgae in saltwater raceways on land that is not suitable for other types of agriculture eliminates competition for acres used for food crop production.
Another advantage to producing microalgae as a fuel source is that one day it may be possible to recycle nutrients from wastewater generated at municipal treatment facilities for use in the raceways, further providing environmental benefits. Fernandez says this will help municipal wastewater treatment operations reduce costs and will provide for a greener process because the algae will clean up the wastewater.
If researchers can produce algae that produce high amounts of oil and grow fast, a commercial partner could then grow large amounts of it, extract the oil, convert that oil into gasoline or diesel fuel and sell it just like at a normal gasoline pump. One advantage is that fuels derived from algae would be easier on the environment because they don’t emit any excess carbon into the atmosphere.
"Lastly, we are looking to enrich our biomass cultures utilizing CO2emissions from facilities like the Barney M. Davis Power Station in Flour Bluff, which is a natural gas powered system that produces CO2emissions," he said. The Mariculture Research Centeris located adjacent to the power station. "Also other types of industrial plants produce carbon dioxide and our idea is to capture these unwanted emissions and put them to good use in the production of microalgae to further benefit the environment."