Las Cruces Utilities, NMSU partner on algae biofuel project

[USA] Las Cruces Utilities has joined with New Mexico State University professors on a project funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy using algae and wastewater to produce biofuels.

“This project is of interest to any entity that utilizes large amounts of fuel, whether oil, natural gas, biogas, biodiesel, electricity, etc.,” says Mark Rodriguez, interim manager at the Jacob A. Hands Wastewater Treatment Facility. “Now, as this algae project is successful, there’ll be another source for alternative energy and a beneficial application for wastewater.”

NSF is providing $5 million to fund the project over the course of 10 years, while the DOE has contributed about $150,000 per year to the research.

NMSU researchers work with crew members from Las Cruces Utilities to pump wastewater through their prototype algal treatment system. The algae removes contaminants from the water, making it suitable for discharging into waterway. Oil later extracted from the algae could be used to produce a new biofuel. (Courtesy photo)

NMSU College of Engineering professors Nagamany Nirmalakhandan and Shuguang Deng received the grant funding to develop an algal-based system that removes certain nutrients from wastewater making it suitable for discharge into waterways. Furthermore, the NMSU team plans to use lipids extracted from the algae to develop a new biofuel. This process is driven by sunlight and does not require any energy input; as such, it has the potential to save significant energy that is currently consumed to treat wastewater at the Jacob A. Hands Wastewater Treatment Facility.

Dr. Nirmalakhandan explains, “At a particularly acidic pH level — in which other organisms and viruses cannot survive — an algae species (discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park), thrives in wastewater and extracts certain nutrients, such as organic carbon, nitrates, and phosphates.”

In addition to removing contaminants, the second part of the project involves extracting oil from the algae to produce fuel. Nirmalakhandan likened the oil-extraction process to cooking food in a pressure cooker.

Although there are similar algal-based projects in the works around the globe to produce fuels, what makes this project unique is that it doesn’t require clean, potable water, and it utilizes the nutrients in the wastewater. Wastewater is in plentiful supply all over the world. “The group of researchers has already applied for a patent,” Nirmalakhandan said.


Photo: NMSU student Shanka Henkanatte Gedara, working toward his Ph.D., is one of many researchers involved in the algae project. (Courtesy photo)

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