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Cornell Joins Team Taking Head-first Plunge Into Algae Biofuels

Cornell University researchers have joined other scientists and a biofuel research company on a mission to develop a commercial-scale algae-to-fuel facility by 2015. The effort is backed by a $9 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Newswise — Cornell University researchers have joined other scientists and a biofuel research company on a mission to develop a commercial-scale algae-to-fuel facility by 2015.

The effort is backed by a $9 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Cellana, an algal biofuel research company based in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, is leading the consortium. Cornell, along with Duke University, San Francisco State University, the University of Hawaii and the University of Southern Mississippi, will work out plans for developing a 100-acre commercial-scale facility to produce fuels and animal feeds from microalgae.

“Relative to other fuels, algae produce at least 10 times more biomass per hectare than terrestrial land plants,” says Charles Greene, a Cornell professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, who is a principal investigator on the project.

Algae use nutrients more efficiently than land plants, so there is no runoff of nutrients into the water. They are also grown in seawater, so there is no demand for fresh water, and they don’t require soil, “so you don’t have to compete with food plants for good agricultural land,” the way terrestrial biofuels do, Greene says.

Greene is working with Jeff Tester, a professor of sustainable energy systems in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and associate director of the Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, to analyze the economics, energy costs and carbon footprint of the project.

“In the ideal sense, all biofuels should approach carbon neutrality,” says Greene.

To help improve the economic viability of the project, Cellana is looking into extracting proteins for nutritional supplements for animal feeds from the byproducts of algal biofuel production. Such supplements could provide revenue to subsidize some of the biofuel production costs, especially in the early stages. Cornell’s Xingen Lei, professor of molecular nutrition in the Department of Animal Sciences, is now conducting feeding trials of such algal-based nutritional supplements in chickens and pigs.

“We’re hopeful that we can create a product that will be competitive with fossil fuels even at today’s prices,” said Greene.

The grant is funded through the DOE’s Office of Biomass Programs as part of the implementation of the agency’s National Algal Biofuels Roadmap. Cellana also receives substantial support from Royal Dutch Shell.