BOZEMAN -- Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded Montana State University and Utah State University a three-year, $900,000 grant to study the oil produced by algae, which could be a renewable source of biodiesel.
The two universities will split the money more or less down the middle, said Brent Peyton, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at MSU and the principal investigator of the grant.
"It's been known for 20 years that algae could produce lipids, but it really took the most recent spike in fuel prices to make getting fuel from algae an option," Peyton said.
Almost all algae contain some oil, but the algae that Peyton and his fellow researchers are interested in are 30 to 50 percent oil by weight. This oil can be harvested and converted into biofuels in much the same way oil is harvested from crops like camelina and canola.
The MSU and Utah State project will screen different kinds of algae to learn which species produce the most oil and which can produce those oils most efficiently. The test algae will come from existing stocks at labs across the country and from field sampling, Peyton said.
Once the researchers find a candidate species, they will grow large numbers of the algae in a "raceway" bioreactor at Utah State. This 10,000-gallon, climate-controlled water tank has machinery that keeps the algae gently moving so that they can grow more efficiently.
One of Peyton's collaborators, retired MSU microbiologist Keith Cooksey, was a pioneer in algal oil biofuel research in the early 1980s. However, funding for the research dried up by the end of the decade, halting algal biofuel work until the recent spike in oil prices caused interest to pick up again last year.
"Although biofuel research with algae hasn't moved much in the last 20 years, molecular work with algae has made some significant advances," Cooksey said, nothing that those advances will help today's resear
|Contact: Michael Becker|
Montana State University