NMSU expands algae research with 4,000-liter photobioreactor

Writer: Jay Rodman

New Mexico State University is significantly expanding its capacity to accomplish critical algal biofuel research with the recent installation of a new photobioreactor system from Solix BioSystems at the university’s Fabian Garcia Research Center in Las Cruces. The system promises to accelerate the university’s emergence as a leader in this important research area.

Lumian AGS4000

Engineers from Solix BioSystems set up NMSU’s new Lumian AGS4000 algae cultivation system with the help of Maheswar Boddu (standing, right), civil engineer at NMSU’s Energy Research Laboratory. The new 4,000-liter photobioreactor joins other algae research equipment at the Fabian Garcia Research Center in Las Cruces. (NMSU photo by Jay Rodman)

“Energy security and sustainability are global challenges,” said Vimal Chaitanya, vice president for research at NMSU. “With the demand for energy in developing nations projected to far outweigh that in the industrialized nations, it is critical to develop clean energy options. Otherwise, developing countries will have no choice but to implement ‘business-as-usual’ approaches to energy production, with serious negative impacts on the global environment.

“We are happy to be engaged in developing approaches that will not only grow the local economy in New Mexico but will maintain U.S. leadership in the global environment and energy security while reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.”

Funds to purchase the system came from a recent $2.3 million U.S. Air Force grant; long-range operational costs will be covered by a $49 million Department of Energy grant that established the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts consortium.

The Solix BioSystems Lumian AGS4000 is an algae cultivation system with a 4,000-liter production capacity that allows faster and denser production of algae than open “raceway” systems. In the new photobioreactor, algae culture will grow in enclosed panels suspended in an open 61- by 11-foot water-filled basin. Control of various factors, such as temperature, carbon dioxide content and nutrient supply, is very precise and the panels are designed to optimize solar exposure. The result is a system that can accelerate the rate of CO2 absorption, and therefore the rate of algae growth, up to 10 times the rate of raceways and can produce up to three times the density of algae per liter of water.

“The NMSU team plans to experiment with algae cultivation using the high-performance AGS4000 to produce improved algal ‘seed’ culture for cultivation ‘scale-up’ in less expensive raceway systems,” said Peter Lammers, NMSU research professor and technical director of the university’s Algal Bioenergy Program. “Optimizing those steps will allow us to develop cultivation practices for both improved control of ‘weedy’ algae and maximizing oil content.”

Solix engineers, working with NMSU researchers and facilities personnel, completed the initial setup of the complex system April 8. Lammers said the system should be fully operational sometime in May.

In the context of NMSU’s multifaceted algal research agenda, the photobioreactor has a dual purpose, according to Lammers. Not only will it help answer major research questions about how best to raise algae in the southern New Mexico climate, it will assume an expanding role as a production facility.

The standardized algal biomass it generates will be used for research on algal oil extraction and fuel conversion technologies, as well as the development of algal co-products such as high-protein animal or fish meal and fish-oil replacements. “The economics of algae-derived fuel will be very difficult without generating revenue from every portion of the algae biomass,” Lammers said.

Among the researchers in four NMSU colleges whose work will be supported by the new system are Wiebke J. Boeing, Shanna Ivey, Tanner Schaub and Adrian Unc in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences; Meghan Starbuck in the College of Business; Wayne Van Voorhies in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Shuguang Deng and Nirmala Khandan in the College of Engineering.

The Lumian AGS4000 will help researchers answer many critical questions, including: What varieties of saltwater algae thrive in southern New Mexico? What combination of factors will optimize their lipid content? Can industrial CO2 and brackish water be used in their cultivation? Can municipal and/or agricultural waste be used as nutrients? What is the best way to extract the lipid content of the algae and refine it into fuel? How can the production process be engineered to make it economically viable? Can the non-lipid biomass be used to feed livestock? Can water from the Solix system be used to irrigate certain plants?

For more information about NMSU’s role in the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts, go to http://www.research.nmsu.edu/

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