Thursday, September 16, 2010

Science Thursday

Jamie Harris
Jamie Harris is Class of 2012 at UVa,  a Rodman Scholar in Chemical Engineering, and, among other things,  RodSquad Co-Director. (Rod Squad is a program started with a grant from Lockheed Martin that trains Scholars about sustainability and home energy conservation, then sends them out into the Charlottesville area to conduct home energy audits.)

I'm also happy to report that Jamie recently jumped into the WMRA community conversation on Facebook. Which is where our paths crossed. Or perhaps I should say e-crossed.

Over the summer, I learned, Jamie did research on algae processing for use in bio-fuels. And when I heard about this, I have to tell you, my Inner Green Person sat up and barked. What a great idea/theory -- however it's termed at this stage.

 I asked Jamie for more information about his summer work, and he sent the following.
Algae uses a fraction of the nutrients and "field space" of other ethanol producers (such as soybeans and corn). Algae also effectively takes CO2 out of wastewater and uses it to grow. This means algae is an effective wastewater treatment option for large scale factories, but this isn't happening yet. Research at UVa and elsewhere is trying to show that it is a feasible and effective option.

Once the algae has grown, it can be converted to biodiesel via the same reaction that turns corn into ethanol, soybean oil into biodiesel, etc. This is where my research lies-- finding the best type of algae and set of reaction conditions-- especially selecting the correct catalyst and designing that catalyst-- to make this reaction as efficient and cost effective as possible. It was a very exciting summer, getting myself acquainted with the lab and the reaction. Unfortunately, as a third-year chemical engineering student, my course load is quite rigorous and I don't have much time for research thus far.
Hopefully algae pans out sometime in the next decade. Who knows. It is better than corn or soybeans for biofuels, potentially/ given the opportunity. In my opinion.


I got busy this morning and dug around on the internet to see what else was out there about the feasibility of  bio-fuels from algae. And found many references to a cautionary study published by UVa researchers in January 2010 in Environmental Science and Technology that indicated the process, as it's currently understood, is not yet viable.
In this work, the impacts associated with algae production were determined using a stochastic life cycle model and compared with switchgrass, canola, and corn farming. The results indicate that these conventional crops have lower environmental impacts than algae in energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water regardless of cultivation location. 
The study's abstract also said there is still hope for the algae-into-bio-fuel process.
Only in total land use and eutrophication potential do algae perform favorably. The large environmental footprint of algae cultivation is driven predominantly by upstream impacts, such as the demand for CO2 and fertilizer. To reduce these impacts, flue gas and, to a greater extent, wastewater could be used to offset most of the environmental burdens associated with algae. To demonstrate the benefits of algae production coupled with wastewater treatment, the model was expanded to include three different municipal wastewater effluents as sources of nitrogen and phosphorus. Each provided a significant reduction in the burdens of algae cultivation, and the use of source-separated urine was found to make algae more environmentally beneficial than the terrestrial crops.
There's not much else besides this one cautionary study out there on the alga-into-bio-fuel process, yet I somehow take comfort in knowing – through Facebook and thanks to Jamie Harris – that the research into it is ongoing. I find it a relief – as we struggle through this staggeringly destructive, lingering drought – to know hopeful scientists and engineers are out there, working away, trying to figure out what we can do to salvage this sweet old world.

Martha note: I've asked Jamie to ask anyone he knows who's got any more information about this process to comment. You got anything to add?


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