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Montana State University researcher finds renewed interest in turning algae into fuel

BOZEMAN -- The same brown algae that cover rocks and cause anglers to slip while fly fishing contain oil that can be turned into diesel fuel, says a Montana State University microbiologist.

Drivers can't pump algal fuel into their gas tanks yet, but Keith Cooksey said the idea holds promise. He felt that way 20 years ago. He feels that way today.

"We would be there now if people then hadn't been so short-sighted," Cooksey said.

Cooksey is one of many U.S. scientists who studied the feasibility of turning algal oil into biodiesel in the 1980s. The U.S. Department of Energy, through its Aquatics Species program, funded their research. Cooksey's lab made a number of discoveries. Scientific journals published his findings.

Funding dried up, however, and the scientists went on to other things.

"Rumor had it that big oil got in the way," Cooksey said. "They didn't want competition so the project was dropped."

Cooksey "sort of" retired as a research professor in 2003. He now directs the Department of Defense's EPSCoR program for Montana. A few months ago, however, Cooksey started getting phone calls and e-mails from researchers and others who read about his algal work on the Internet or had seen it referenced in scientific journals. Companies tried to hire him as a consultant. He was invited to attend conferences. He ran into several scientists who had been his friendly competitors in the old days. They all said, "If only."

"It's a very strange feeling," said Cooksey, now 72. "You don't usually have people bending your ear on what you did 20 years ago. Science doesn't work that way, but in this case, it did."

The revived interest in microalgae stems from the conflict in the Middle East and the resulting focus on alternative fuels, Cooksey said.

"Our lab was one of three or four in the world doing research that nobody was really interested in," Cooksey said. "Now, suddenly lots of peo

Contact: Evelyn Boswell
Montana State University

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