Nation & World

Researchers to use algae to make diesel fuel

Aiming for 'fast moves' to reduce carbon footprint

Detroit Free Press/TNS

University of Michigan Ph.D. student Jonathan Martin shows how he runs tests on the heat release rate of diesel fuel to help with efficiency and emissions at the Walter E. Lay Automotive Laboratory on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Detroit Free Press/TNS University of Michigan Ph.D. student Jonathan Martin shows how he runs tests on the heat release rate of diesel fuel to help with efficiency and emissions at the Walter E. Lay Automotive Laboratory on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The vial of fuel that Andre Boehman and Bradley Cardinale are trying to fill would fit four times into a two-liter bottle of Faygo Redpop.

The University of Michigan professors and their team will try to do this for $2.5 million, most of it from a U.S. Department of Energy grant.

When they’ve finished the project in three years, Boehman, Cardinale and the rest of the team, including researchers from Penn State and the University of Delaware, hope to provide one possible solution to the challenges of climate change and pollution.

And the root of their efforts is a living organism — algae.

The grant will help pay for the team’s plans to separate oil from algae into a viable diesel fuel blend, one that is primarily a renewable energy source.

With a United Nations panel warning this month of the need for “rapid and far-reaching” changes to limit global warming impacts, algal fuel could be an answer, said Boehman, a mechanical engineer and director of the University of Michigan’s W.E. Lay Automotive Laboratory.

“We have to start making ... faster moves for reducing our carbon footprint,” Boehman said.

“And one of the most effective ways of reducing our carbon footprint, which could be put into effect almost immediately, is to burn lower-carbon fuels in the vehicles we have today.

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“That may take a decade or a generation to make it happen at scale, but we need technologies that are scalable, and that’s where Brad comes in.”

Cardinale, a professor of environment and sustainability, has been growing algae in artificial ponds in the Pinckney area. His challenge is to grow a stable crop of algae, which can be turned over to chemical engineers and then to Boehman for use in a diesel engine.

The team’s approach to picking the right species of algae from the “hundreds of thousands” in existence is through soft, or ecological, engineering, Cardinale said.

“Instead of fighting against nature to grow these algal biofuels ... maybe we should work with Mother Nature because she’s had about three billion years of evolution to create things that are highly productive,” Cardinale said.

The group will try to settle on a species that can resist disease and grow consistently in large enough volumes and has the chemical properties which work well in engines.

Unfortunately, the type of algae that mucks up large bodies of water from time to time, including the Great Lakes, is not appropriate for biofuel, Cardinale said.

image problem

The dream of creating an economical algal fuel for vehicles is not new.

One of the major private players in that effort, a California company formerly known as Solazyme, shifted its algal fuel ambitions to food and personal care industries in 2016 “in a world of ultra cheap petroleum-based oil,” according to Forbes.

Diesel, despite the beating its image has taken in the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, offers significant fuel economy and towing advantages over gasoline engines.

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Although diesel has not been the significant factor in the U.S. passenger car market that it has been in Europe before recent declines, expanding sales of diesel pickups in particular are expected to boost diesel sales to more than 1.5 million vehicles by 2020, according to IHS Markit.

Diesel, however, still has an image problem, highlighted by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The group noted that “diesel-powered vehicles and equipment account for nearly half of all nitrogen oxides and more than two-thirds of all particulate matter emissions from U.S. transportation sources” and that particulate matter can contribute to premature death, according to a Free Press report.

Boehman, however, noted that properly engineered diesel engines and fuel would keep pollutants “as low as engineering can allow” while also limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

“Diesel engines are a very important factor in helping us improve fuel economy and reduce tailpipe CO2 emissions and that’s one way to reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of a vehicle,” Boehman said.

The Department of Energy grant is focused only on diesel fuel, but the professors envision a process that could eventually be used for other types of fuel as well.

“We can design biofuels with the chemical properties we want for any condition and that’s one of the advantages of this,” Cardinale said.

“The intent is to lay the groundwork for designer biofuel.”

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