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Cornell researchers ponder feasibility of undertaking algae for biofuel research

Should Cornell researchers undertake the project of studying algae as a source for biofuel, participants at a July 15 topical lunch discussion in Rice Hall pondered.

"Why algae? Why now?" asked Beth Ahner, Cornell associate professor of biological and environmental engineering, who mediated the discussion. "Why now is easy, because fuel prices are through the roof, and so people are seeking opportunities to find a cheaper source for biofuels."

Hosted by the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future (CCSF), the discussion luncheon, "Improving the Stability and Productivity of Algal Bioreactors for Biofuel Production," attracted about 20 Cornell faculty members and researchers in molecular biology, plant biology, genetics and engineering, and focused on the economic and technological feasibility of algae as a source for biomass.

"There is no one on campus actually growing algae right now for biofuels, and the question is should we be doing that," said Ahner, who studies biomolecular farming and some aspects of algae.

Citing a 2007 article in Nature magazine, Ahner said that algae yields significantly more biomass per acre than many other biofuel sources. Despite this advantage, Ahner listed the current challenges to producing algae on a large scale, including optimizing the growth conditions, developing an economical process to harvest the algae and the high capital costs for these systems.

The group debated whether an open system or a closed system would be most cost effective and generate the greatest yield. In an open system, the algae essentially grows in a pond; in the closed systems, the algae grows in a controlled and contained environment. The open systems are cheaper and easier to develop, but growth may be greater in a managed environmental condition, she said.

The group also discussed algae's ability to capture carbon dioxide and how to best grow algae to be most economically feasible and productive; it also addressed genetically modifying algae to create an ideal strain for biofuel production. Considering the high-energy costs of such current harvesting processes as centrifugation and filtration, the researchers also discussed modifying the algal density so that it would float in water, allowing the cells to be gleaned from the surface.

Ahner said that at Cornell, it would be most effectual to set up a small-scale, controllable system to develop new technology. She mentioned several venture capitalist companies currently working with algae to produce biofuel, many of which are partnered with research institutions. Although Cornell does not currently have such a partnership, it is a goal for the future.

Ahner said that a subset of the group plans to move ahead with a CCSF grant proposal this fall, and that the CCSF lunch facilitated several new connections that will be valuable for moving forward.

Laura Janka '09 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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