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Biofuels research at NMSU could help create thousands of New Mexico jobs

Research being done at New Mexico State University on the production of algae-based biofuels would become increasingly important to New Mexico's - and the nation's - economic prosperity, if U.S. Sen. Tom Udall has his way. Udall visited the campus Aug. 9 to announce he will soon introduce legislation in the Senate to ensure a more level playing field for the algal biofuels industry.

Pete Lammers (left), NMSU research professor and the technical director of the university's Algal Bioenergy Program, explains the university's new 4,000-liter Solix BioSystems algal photobioreactor to U.S. Sen. Tom Udall and NMSU President Barbara Couture. Udall was on the NMSU campus Aug. 9 to announce legislation he will soon introduce to ensure a more level playing field for the algal biofuels industry. (NMSU Photo by Jay A. Rodman)

Joining Udall at the news conference were NMSU President Barbara Couture; Pete Lammers, NMSU research professor and the technical director of the university's Algal Bioenergy Program; Jim Peach, Regents Professor of Economics; and Denise Gitsham, director of corporate affairs and legislative counsel for Sapphire Energy, Inc., owner of a large biorefinery in Columbus, N.M.

The U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 established a production target of 36 billion gallons of advanced biofuels by 2022, with separate volume requirements for each category of renewable fuel. It also required that life cycle analyses be used to ensure that each renewable fuel emits less greenhouse gas that the petroleum it replaces.

Udall feels that the renewable fuel standards established by that law go a long way toward promoting U.S. energy security through domestic production of fossil fuel alternatives. In the current version, however, mandated targets for alternative fuel production favor corn-based and cellulosic ethanol over algae-based and other "advanced" biofuels.

He expressed his belief that Congress should promote research and development of alternative energy sources, but that the market should determine the balance among the various alternatives. The legislation that he and Public Works Committee colleague Larry Crapo of Idaho plan to introduce will mandate parity for algae and other non-cellulosic advanced biofuels, in terms of production requirements and subsidies under the renewable fuel standards. Comparable bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives.

Udall chose NMSU as the site for his announcement because of the university's established commitment to algal biofuel research. NMSU recently moved into algae bio-oil production mode with a new 4,000-liter Solix BioSystems algal photobioreactor, which joined four smaller algae "raceways" at the Fabian Garcia Science Center in Las Cruces. The university is a member of the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts consortium, established through $49 million in grants from the Department of Energy to explore all aspects of algal biofuel production, harvesting, extraction and upgrading to diesel and jet fuels.

Prior to the news conference, Udall was greeted by NMSU President Barbara Couture at the science center. He then met with a group that included other NMSU administrators, New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte, and faculty and staff members involved in algal research. They showed him the new algal photobioreactor, as well as an automated biodiesel processor, and discussed various ways NMSU's algal technology might be integrated into dairy and livestock production facilities, or even inland shrimp farming.

Pete Lammers is an NMSU research professor and the technical director of the university's Algal Bioenergy Program. In his presentation, he stressed the importance of algae research in benefiting humankind. He foresees a situation in the not-too-distant future where converting algae into fuel will not only fill a significant portion of the nation's energy needs, but will also capture value from waste streams to create a "cradle-to-cradle" approach to industrial ecology. For example, dairy farm waste is currently considered to be an environmental threat, but it is rich in nutrients that algae thrive on. Using that waste to feed algae would keep it out of the water system and put it to productive use while lowering fuel production costs.

Lammers sees the current push to develop renewable fuels to blend with traditional petroleum products as a turning point in global energy policy, and he believes algae can play a key role.

"I think of algae cultivation as a waste-to-energy process that will benefit the economics of existing agricultural enterprises," Lammers said. "This is the first step in a long journey. Industrial ecologies capable of sustaining a population of 7 billion people for a thousand years will waste nothing and recycle everything. In the long run, that will include industrial, municipal and agricultural waste streams."

In his news conference remarks, Udall pointed out the advantages algal biofuel has over other options and the advantages New Mexico has over most other states in producing it.

Comparing algae to corn grown for ethanol, and to soybeans used for biodiesel production, Udall explained that algae production requires much less land, can be accomplished with lower quality water, results in the absorption of large amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide - and it is not a food crop, so growing it for fuel production doesn't impact the food supply.

New Mexico is an ideal place for algal biofuel production. It has plentiful sunshine, an abundance of water unsuitable for consumption or crop irrigation, and land is not scarce.

"I believe New Mexico is well-positioned to be a leader in this," Udall said. "And with policies that encourage the production of clean energy, our state can create an energy economy that leads the nation in developing the jobs of the future."

Udall shared the results of a survey of 52 Algal Biomass Organization member companies on the issue of potential job growth from legislative and regulatory parity for algae. The estimate based on this survey suggested that "explosive" job growth - more than 200,000 jobs nationwide - could be expected over the next decade if Congress puts algae on a level playing field with ethanol and other advanced biofuels.

Many of these jobs would be in New Mexico.

Jim Peach, Regents Professor of economics at NMSU, and colleague Meghan Starbuck-Downes have studied the potential economic impact of algal biofuel production. Based on their economic model, they estimate that for every 100 million gallons of algal biofuel produced in the state, there would be 450 jobs created, including direct, indirect, and induced jobs. State revenues would likely be boosted by $8 million to $9 million. To put this into perspective, 100 million gallons is equivalent to about 4 percent of New Mexico's recent average yearly crude oil production.

"New Mexico is an energy state with vast reserves of oil, natural gas, coal and uranium," Peach said. "Wind and solar are significant parts of the state's energy industry. Nearly all energy analysts agree that we need to develop all forms of energy. The algal biofuels industry could become an important part of the state's energy portfolio and could have substantial economic impacts."