Researching algae is a bit of a departure for Peyton, whose background is in using microorganisms to clean up environmental contamination. But he said it would be a constructive departure.
"I wanted to use natural organisms not just to break something down but to produce something," said Peyton, who earned his doctorate at MSU in 1992. "This work is an opportunity to use my bioprocessing skills to produce something of value to society."
Ideally, algae harvesting is a self-sustaining process, Peyton said, since the tiny organisms spend most of their time just soaking up sunlight and reproducing.
Algae can produce more usable oil per acre than crops like canola or soybeans, Peyton said. Soybeans produce about 50 gallons of oil per acre per year; an acre of canola produces about 130 gallons per year. Algae, however, could produce at least 4,000 gallons of oil per acre in the same time.
"Algae should produce about 200 times more biodiesel per acre than other biofuel crops," Peyton said. "And 200 may be a low number."
Algae also have benefits that make farming them easier on growers, Peyton said. Algae farms can be located on non-prime agricultural land and can use water not suitable for food crops.
"Algae, unlike some other biofuel crops, don't double as food, which means that harvesting them for biofuel production won't affect food prices like it would if we diverted part of the corn crop to biofuel," Peyton said.
One issue holding algal biofuel farming back so far has been scale, Peyton said. It's one thing to grow algae in a four-gallon or even a 10,000-gallon tank; it's another thing to expand that operation up to the industrial scale and turn it into a business.
|Contact: Michael Becker|
Montana State University