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Green by Nature: Algae research may lead to new alternative fuel industry in Ohio

By Mauricio Espinoza

StudentStephen Park, a master’s degree student, checks algae growing in Yebo Li’s lab at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster.Algae grown in an Ohio State biosystems engineer’s lab has further developed in ponds at a Wooster, Ohio, farm this summer, generating thousands of gallons of oil that will be turned into renewable fuel.

Yebo Li, an assistant professor of food, agricultural and biological engineering with the university’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), is working with West Virginia-based Touchstone Research Laboratory in the development of innovative technology for efficiently and profitably growing algae in open ponds for production of fuels and other high-value, bio-based products. Also partnering in the venture are Cedar Lanes Farms, a nursery and greenhouse operation near OARDC’s Wooster campus; engineering firm GZA GeoEnvironmental of Cincinnati; and SRS Energy of Dexter, Mich.

“Algae needs only one-tenth of the land soybeans need to produce the same amount of oil,” says Li, who also is a specialist with Ohio State University Extension. “And because algae is about 40 percent lipids (oil) and 60 percent biomass, there’s also an opportunity to use this biomass that’s left over after oil extraction as a fertilizer or as a feedstock for making energy through anaerobic digestion.”

Two years ago, Touchstone, which produces algae, sought OARDC’s expertise in anaerobic digestion — the process of creating biogas from organic materials such as manure and food-processing waste inside a biodigester.

“We wanted to investigate how anaerobic digestion could generate usable renewable energy from our low-value product (algae biomass) that’s remaining after our process,” explains Drew Spradling, Touchstone’s director of business development.

Li discovered that the nutrient-rich liquid effluent remaining after a biodigester turns waste into methane can be used to feed the algae. So Li is now growing algae in his lab using the liquid effluent, perfecting a formula to test in the field. The effluent comes from quasar energy group, which operates its flagship biodigester on OARDC’s BioHio Research Park. The process gives Touchstone an integrated system.

“We can recycle nutrients and water and have a continuous stream of effluent and nutrients to help us grow the algae,” Spradling says. “The algae biomass is then used to produce renewable energy through anaerobic digestion, and that process generates more effluent to grow more algae.”

Funded by close to $7 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, Touchstone will be testing this system in four algae-producing ponds at Cedar Lane Farms — with an annual production capacity of some 2,000 gallons of oil, which will be turned into fuel. Construction began this summer.

“Our intent is to use that pilot plant to attract investors, license our technology to many others in the algae industry and hope that they can adopt our production process to improve their economics through energy savings and reduction of water usage,” Spradling says, adding that the company eventually hopes to sell the components for the process domestically and internationally and create a complete suite of renewable products: fuel, energy and specialty products. “Ultimately, we are trying to reduce the cost enough to compete with petroleum fuels, tackling challenges facing the algae industry to make it competitive.”

Touchstone created several jobs in Ohio during the initial phase of the algae project and will create up to six more once the testing phase begins later this year. Spradling says the company plans to lease a new office and a lab at Cedar Lane Farms and expand its operations to the BioHio Research Park.

Tags: Research