UDRI develops outdoor algae-growing system to create biofuels

University of Dayton researchers have developed an outdoor algae production system capable of capturing carbon emissions and producing alternative fuel oil, achieving the goal of a five-year, $3.4 million U.S. Air Force-funded research project, school officials said.

The university’s Research Institute is now working to secure next-phase funding to demonstrate the technology on a larger scale at a carbon dioxide source, such as natural gas boilers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, said Sukh Sidhu, head of UDRI’s Energy Technologies and Materials division.

“If we can demonstrate it at Wright-Patt, after that it will be ready for commercialization to industry,” Sidhu said.

If funded, the larger scale algae system would be installed next to a natural gas plant at Wright-Patterson, said Lt. Col. Scott V. Fitzner, acquisition systems support branch chief at the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Fitzner said the system would capture carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses to reduce pollution. It also would produce algae biomass that can be exchanged as a commodity or refined into “green” diesel for use in ground vehicles and equipment.

Sidhu said the Air Force is the “primary option,” but UDRI is exploring other funding sources including the U.S. Department of Energy and private industry. Researchers hope to secure funding in the next two to three months, so they can start building the demonstration system at an industrial site in the fall, he said.

UDRI opened its $850,000 outdoor algae lab in August at its River Campus building at 1700 S. Patterson Blvd. The fully automated, closed system was designed to produce algae year-round in an outdoor setting, away from laboratory-controlled conditions, regardless of weather.

The system was subjected to this past winter’s arctic cold, when temperatures dropped to -13 degrees at the Dayton International Airport. “We feel very confident that we can pretty much handle any winter,” Sidhu said.

Algae feeds on carbon dioxide and converts it to oil, which accounts for as much as 70 percent of the organism’s body weight in some strains. UDRI’s technology captures carbon dioxide from industrial exhaust stacks before it is released into the atmosphere and runs it through algae-growing systems. This provides an alternative to geosequestration, where carbon dioxide is pumped deep into the earth, officials said.

In turn, the algae oil can be extracted and used to create renewable resources for biofuel.

“This is one of those technologies that lights up everyone’s eyes because it has so much potential,” Sidhu said.

UDRI has been performing research, testing and development of algae and algae-growing systems for pollution control and alternative energies since 2009 under funding from the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.

The new, 10,000-square-foot outdoor lab has an algae reactor volume of 40,000 liters — 10 times that of an indoor research system that continues to operate in a UDRI lab on the university’s main campus.

The outdoor system has surpassed the Department of Energy’s 2018 production standards to determine whether the technology is economically viable for commercialization, Sidhu said.

Algae generation systems need to be able to operate outdoors to integrate with industrial plants that produce carbon dioxide. Sidhu said the planned demonstration system would scale up the technology to a 2-acre site, with 3,000 algae reactors, compared to the current outdoor lab’s 80 reactors.

“Data and performance of the smaller scale system at UDRI indicates commercial and/or broad federal potential. However, these results are preliminary and require validation through the larger scale demonstration,” Fitzner said.

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