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NMSU helps turn pools of green algae into piles of green money for state's economy

Imagine filling your tank with a fuel grown in New Mexico, not drilled for in some far-off country. What if that fuel created a more secure energy future while pumping new money into the state's economy? What would it take to make that fuel economically viable?

Scientists are still perfecting algae farming, finding the right balance of sunlight, nutrients and other factors needed for algae to produce the most oil. These algae ponds are at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia.(NMSU photo by Robert Yee)

That's what C. Meghan Starbuck, an assistant professor of economics at New Mexico State University, is working on - a way to turn microalgae, and millions of their tiny, slimy friends, into a successful fuel industry for the state.

Microalgae are essentially mini green oil factories, turning carbon and sunlight into oil almost since the beginning of time. While most swimming pool owners will attest it doesn't take much for algae to start growing in open water, the trick is figuring out how to produce it at a cost that makes sense.

Unlike other crops that have been raised for thousands of years, experts are still perfecting algae farming. The right balance of sunlight, nutrients and other factors needed for algae to produce the most oil is still not clear. Harvesting at the right time is also important in maximizing the amount of oil generated by the plant.

"Algal biofuel can be refined into a variety of fuels, including gasoline. I would run my car on algal-based gasoline, if I could get my hands on a couple of gallons," Starbuck said. Her car, a 315-horsepower 2010 Mustang GT, comes in handy when making the 143-mile trip between Las Cruces and the NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Artesia.

The Artesia Science Center is home to a project with the Center for Excellence in Hazardous Materials Management, a nonprofit group in Carlsbad leading an effort in Southeastern New Mexico to produce biofuels from algae. According to Starbuck, CEHMM is a leader when it comes to scaling-up algae production, an important step in making the biofuel industry economically successful in New Mexico.

"Few companies have been able to produce algae on the scale that they have," she said. "It's one thing to have success in a beaker. It's another thing to replicate that in quantities large enough to sustain an industry."

Algae grow best in only a few areas of the U.S., which includes New Mexico and a handful of surrounding states. Starbuck said that means the Land of Enchantment stands to benefit tremendously from a fully developed algal fuel industry.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. imports an average of 3.5 billion barrels of oil a year, with a 10-year price average of nearly $50 a barrel.

"Roughly speaking, this means imported crude oil is a $173 billion-a-year industry," Starbuck said. "If biocrude could be substituted for this quantity at the average 10-year real price, then the potential market for biocrude would be $173 billion annually."

Starbuck said producing biocrude in the U.S. would also provide a more stable and secure supply chain, as opposed to oil produced in other parts of the world and then shipped to the United States.

Another plus, unlike ethanol produced from grains, fuel produced from algae can be stored in the same tanks, shipped through the same pipelines and run in the same engines as traditional fuel without any necessary modifications. It also takes less energy to refine.

Starbuck said if New Mexico could capture just 35 percent of an algal fuel industry, the potential for job creation could be enormous. Some of her models put potential employment in algal fuel and algal fuel-related companies in the hundreds of thousands, with potential tax revenue in the billions.

Right now, it's still unclear how much land and water would be needed for a major biofuel industry in New Mexico. These numbers will vary depending on how successful scientists are at growing mass quantities of algae and how much oil the algae are able to produce. Another hurdle is harvesting algae inexpensively and without using a lot of energy, not easy when you're talking about something only a few microns in size.

One factor helping reduce the amount of water needed is the use of algae that live in salty or brackish water, which is found in abundance in New Mexico. Scientists are also looking at using algae as feed for livestock once the oil is extracted, which would help offset the cost of production.

Yes, the day it's possible to fill your tank with a fuel grown in New Mexico may not be far off, which could be a good thing in more ways than one: The economist working on making this happen doesn't like waiting around. She drives a pretty fast car.

NOTE: This article was taken from the upcoming issue of NMSU's Research & Resources Magazine, which will be available during the Spring 2010 semester online at http://researchmag.nmsu.edu/2010_SP/index.html.