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NMSU's Artesia Center prepares for commercial demonstration of biodiesel project

ARTESIA, N.M. - A little project to turn algae into biodiesel has become so successful, researchers believe they will be ready for a commercial demonstration within the next two years.

Doug Lynn, executive director for the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management, based in Carlsbad, talks at a recent field day at the Agricultural Science Center at Artesia about how the ponds, behind him, play a role in the biodiesel project being conducted at the center.(Photo by Audry Olmsted)

"Commercial demonstration means that we'll operate at least five acres of ponds and harvest algae at a commercial scale, which means that these five acres will have the same size and capacity of ponds one would use in a commercial plant," said Doug Lynn, executive director for the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management (CEHMM).

Lynn said the plan is to be ready for commercial demonstration in 18 months.

New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia serves as the location of research for algae led by CEHMM, which is based in Carlsbad.

The project started in 2006 thanks to a government grant, on the contingency that the center research alternative energy and fuel.

Through the project, researchers investigate biodiesel production processes and the propagation, harvesting and extraction of oil from both brine and fresh water algae. The oil is to be used as a feedstock for biodiesel production.

"New Mexico has all the intrinsic natural resources that make it ideal for growing algae,' Lynn said, adding that the state has sunlight and space for growing the algae, as well as a supply of brackish and saline water.

CEHMM currently operates an algae production lab that consists of many small, indoor tanks, five 1,100-gallon test ponds and two 25,000-gallon pilot ponds at the science center.

Lynn said, "'Going commercial' will involve somewhere around 100 acres of ponds employing technologies that were developed on the commercial demonstration scale."

In the past two years, NMSU's role in the biodiesel pilot project has changed drastically from providing space for two demonstration tanks, a supply of well water and lab space, to having a decidedly more hands-on approach.

Lynn said that in 2006, Pete Lammers, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, came to Artesia's field day.

"Quite frankly, that was like a godsend," Lynn said.

As it turned out, Lammers received his PhD for research with algae and is an expert in that area. Lammers, as well as a team of others at the university, are now lending their expertise to the project.

"We're providing scientific assistance to monitor algal growth dynamics including pond ecology and biochemistry as it relates to oil production," Lammers said.

Along with Lammers, Wayne Van Voorhies, an assistant professor of molecular biology, and Wiebke J. Boeing, an assistant professor with Fish and Wildlife Sciences, are working to maximize the algal growth rate and algal content.

"I think New Mexico State University should be unbelievably proud of what they've contributed to this project," Lynn said. "NMSU is my most prized and valued partner."

And, this project has not just attracted greater attention from NMSU, but also other countries.

"This little project doesn't just have regional attention. It doesn't just have national attention. It has international attention," Lynn said.

Five foreign countries have approached the center about the algae project, including some countries that are experiencing a severe energy crisis and another that wants to set up a similar research plant in their own country. Lynn said he believes that this could be the solution to America's dependency on foreign oil.

Lammers said that Sapphire Energy of San Diego, Calif., is working toward building a facility on the West Mesa Industrial Park in Las Cruces to grow algae.

For now, CEHMM continues to work to identify algae strains best suited for the region, testing harvesting methods and investigating oil extraction technologies.