Scientist At WHOI Derives Jet Fuel From Algae

A scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in collaboration with Western Washington University, has derived jet fuel from an algae that is industrially grown as fish food.

The finding, published in Energy and Fuel, adds to a growing field of research by scientists and companies into using algae as a biofuel source and also highlights the interface of basic laboratory research and the potential for industrial application in the scientific centers in Woods Hole.

“Many institutions and centers here are recognized as basic science centers, but the fruit of their labors can be applied; it’s a positive thing for the town to recognize,” said Christopher M. Reddy a lead author on the study.

However, both Dr. Reddy and collaborator Gregory W. O’Neil, who is on sabbatical at WHOI to work on the project, stress that this is an initial study and its industrial potential is yet to be determined.

“We can make a drop [of jet fuel],” Dr. Reddy said. “The next goal is to see if we can make a gallon. Then we can test it and see if it is a good product.”

Dr. Reddy is a chemist who studies how oil spills affect the environment. He has been a lead researcher on studying the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

About 10 years ago he became interested in how biofuel spills may affect the environment after his father posed the question to him.

In general, Dr. Reddy found that biodiesel ends up being relatively benign when let loose in the environment compared to petroleum-based products.

But he also found that biodiesel sold at the pump contained 20 percent biodiesel with 80 percent petroleum-derived diesel, and was often at lower concentrations than advertised.

“This was not due to any underhandedness. If you don’t mix properly you can have a problem,” Dr. Reddy said. “We were seeing about six percent versus 20 percent.”

This led him more into research on how to make biodiesel in the lab from algae, and Dr. O’Neil, a synthetic chemist, joined in on the project.

Much of the biodiesel studies have looked at corn-based ethanol, Dr. Reddy said, yet algae have rich stores of fat, close to 40 percent of their biomass, that can be mined for biofuel.

In particular, the type of algae he is working with now, Isochrysis, has fats composed of long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms called alkenones. Most biodiesel is derived from triglycerides, such as those in cooking oil. The compilation of carbon atoms and hydrogen atoms in alkenones can be broken up into jet fuel products.

“If you are building something and have the choice of two by fours at 16-foot lengths or [longer], the longer piece gives you more flexibility and opportunity to work with,” he said. “That is how I saw alkenones: we could cut and snip and modify them.”

Using gas chromatography, the scientists separated out the fat components from this algae’s fat stores; the alkenones. which make jet fuel products. and other fatty acids, which can make biodiesel.

How many carbon atoms a molecule has defines the product, Dr. Reddy said.

“Jet fuel is a cut or distillation of crude oil,” he said.

The road to using algal-based biofuels as a sustainable alternative can be hampered by a cost benefit balance of both money going in and the carbon cost (the amount of petroleum-based energy to grow and produce them).

Dr. Reddy was part of an initiative early on to establish a pilot scale biofuel center using local marine algae at Joint Base Cape Cod in collaboration with Marine Biological Laboratory and the Cape Cod Commission, which did not get off the ground because of lack of funding.

“That project was subject to a grant that did not materialize and does not seem to have progressed beyond the initial application stage,” wrote David Still, communications coordinator at the Cape Cod Commission by e-mail.

However, the potential of producing a biofuel for jets is of interest.

“You can’t put a battery or windmill on a wing of a jet,” Dr. Reddy said. “Finding a sustainable fuel for planes is highly sought.”

He said that they are moving from making this product on the lab scale to the pilot test scale.

Right now they are buying hundreds of pounds of the Isochrysis algae from a company in California, which will be worked up in a government lab to see how much jet fuel they can produce.
“This is the big make-or-break moment,” he said. “After pilot scale we can look closely at what we can or cannot do, and what the carbon cost may be.”

For scientists the discovery and road to learn about potential applications are rewarding.

“I am sure certain difficulties may arise as we move forward, but that is part of the fun,” Dr. O’Neil said.

Dr. Reddy appreciates being part of projects that may help train the next generation of scientists.

In this case, he already has. Dr. O’Neil, who is leading the study with Dr. Reddy, did a summer internship in Dr. Reddy’s lab more than 12 years ago.

“It shows that Falmouth students doing mentorships and internships in labs now may be their mentor’s boss later,” he said.

 

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