Sunday, March 2, 2008

Algae to Ethanol - Dr. Sathasivan

This past Wednesday I attended a lecture given by Dr. Sathasivan, a UT biological sciences professor who is known for being an excellent teacher. He recently became involved in the UT Chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World, and has subsequently initiated UT's research into algae as a possible energy source for the fermentation of simple sugars into ethanol. As Dr. Webber has pointed out, UT is the leader in algae research, and that gets me pretty excited about Dr. Sathasivan's research. Perhaps UT can add another notch to its belt with the nations best algae-to-ethanol program...
Dr. Sathasivan began with an overview of the whole oil thing, and followed with the potential biofuels have to make oil a distant memory/nightmare. As I was thinking of names for my algae farm ("Pond Scum Acres", "Green Gold Grange"...), he blindsided us with the reality that's keeping algae down: currently, ethanol costs $20/gallon to produce from algae.
It all seemed so easy. Algae uses essentially free energy sources (not counting the water, which can be reused) to grow and produce its own food (simple sugars). All you have to do is simply kill the algae, mash it up, and feed it to some bacteria or yeast in a closed vessel, wait a few days, and you've got ethanol. The dead yeast (it was killed by ethanol poisoning in the vessel) is burned to supply heat to the distillation column. But before you head to the turtle pond with a jar, there seems to be a slight problem. The cellular membranes of algae are rich in silicates that make the whole mashing up process pretty hard. Researchers are going to have to find an easy way to lyse the algae cells to get at the simple sugars within.
A few other potential problems: algae tends to grow in seasonal cycles, and algae is susceptible to viruses and other pathogens (just like every other living being). One way to get around these limitations contains the most dreaded acronym known to man: GM. Genetically Modified algae can be designed to maximize growth year round and boost immunity. Of course, you can't manipulate algae DNA until you know which strains have the characteristics you're looking for, so someone is going to have to do tons of research on all kinds of algae...Hey, wait a minute! That's us! woot
So in conclusion, algae to ethanol technology exists (although it pretty expensive) and UT has a huge jump on other programs thanks to our vast algae knowledge. Dr. Sathasivan's lecture was very informative and realistic. He didn't present algae as an energy panacea, but he gave me a lot of hope for the future of this potentially revolutionary technology - just like we Americans like it.

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