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Scientists research best ways algae can fuel biodiesel production

ARTESIA - The paddlewheel steadily spins, creating an endless wake of greenish waves in the 10-foot circular stock tank at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia. Even though it seems the stationary paddlewheel isn't making any progress, it may help find the way to cleaner, renewable fuels using oil extracted from one of nature's simplest organisms: single-cell, green algae.

Matt Mathis and Roger Simmons
Matt Mathis, left, and Roger Simmons, technicians with the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management, sample the water in a stock tank being used to grow algae at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia. Researchers are working to determine the best methods to grow and harvest the algae, which can be used to produce oil for biodiesel fuel. (NMSU photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

The NMSU science center is serving as the location of research led by the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management, based in Carlsbad. The research is focused on developing the potential of growing algae as an oil-producing feedstock for biodiesel production.

"NMSU personnel at the Agricultural Science Center at Artesia have been absolutely instrumental in the success of the algae biodiesel project," said Doug Lynn, CEHMM interim executive director. He said NMSU is helping on two fronts - providing technical expertise through the Artesia Science Center and having NMSU College of Engineering Dean Steve Castillo serve on the CEHMM Board of Directors and Technical Advisory Council.

"He has been extremely supportive in everything we do," Lynn said.

The project is investigating the best ways to grow and harvest certain species of algae, which produce a much higher level of oil than more traditional crops like soybeans or canola.

"The oil produced from algae will process into biodiesel as easily as oil obtained from land-based crops," said a news release from CEHMM. "Algae is now considered to be one of the most critical components in alleviating the need for foreign oil. This does not, however, eliminate the likelihood of other oil-based feedstocks from being investigated. CEHMM is also collaborating with the Artesia Science Center on a project focused on the potential of growing a cold-season canola crop to generate oil for biodiesel production."

But why attempt to raise saltwater algae hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean? The tremendous reserves of brackish water, mild climate and abundant sunshine in New Mexico make good conditions for algae farmers.

"We have sunlight and space, and we have a brackish and saline water supply," said Steve Loring, assistant director of NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. He noted that the project was a focus of the Artesia center's annual field day in August.

In addition to space for two demonstration tanks, a supply of well water and technical expertise, the center is providing lab space for the project. While one tank's water is agitated with a paddlewheel, researchers tried a system of pipes to circulate the water in a second tank. The results were less successful than with the paddlewheel, and the second tank is not now growing algae.

Since the tanks were established in July, technicians from CEHMM have conducted measurements almost every day of temperature, salinity, oxygen, pH and other characteristics of the water. A densometer is used to determine the density of algae in the water.
Extension agronomist Robert Flynn is the Artesia center's liaison with the project. He reviews literature that relates to the project and coordinates with the technicians, fine-tuning prior research efforts to match water and weather conditions at Artesia. Flynn also oversees the canola crop project.

The next step in the algae research, Lynn said, is to establish a larger demonstration pond at the Artesia center, about one-quarter of an acre in size. Construction of the pond should be complete in March. The new pond will enable a broader focus on growing and harvesting the algae, as well as oil extraction processes.

A much larger demonstration project to be started in 2008 eventually will cover about 100 acres, Lynn said.

As the project expands, NMSU is expected to remain a critical partner, researching other species of algae, as well as harvesting and oil extraction techniques. "We anticipate a long and productive partnership with New Mexico State University," Lynn said.