Turning Algae into Fuel with the UHP and the SURE Award

12 Sep

Last year, students in Prof. Miller’s Scientific Reasoning and Discovery course won funds from the SURE Award and used it to make some pretty amazing stuff.  Here’s an update about how that money helped them do the kind of hands-on research that to the average person looks almost like magic.   Keep reading for their account.

The Green Stuff!

Finally working with the green stuff!

Shortly after Spring Break 2011, the extraction team at Vitalgae successfully demonstrated the feasibility of supercritical carbon dioxide extraction using orange peels. That success, however, left the team with just enough of a taste for victory to sprint to the end of the school year with environmentally friendly fervor. Encouraged by the presence of the oily product from the orange, Team Extraction finally utilized the Botryococcus Braunii alage cultivated by their colleagues in the process they had used on the orange. Just as with the first few weeks attempts with the orange, though, progress proved to be frustratingly elusive.

Though the process was sound, it was back to the drawing board. Why couldn’t the results be replicated with the algae when it had worked so well with the orange rind? The answer seemed to lie in the equipment and the model for the contraption used to run the experiment. Re-engineering the experimental model to account for the different size and density of the algae (as well as the recently discovered need for much higher temperatures and pressures) required the purchase of metal tubing and pressure-proof fittings. So, with the expenditure of more of their funds, some muscle-power, and more than a little heat and pressure, the team finally got an oily green substance out of a run of supercritical carbon dioxide extraction.

Once more, though, the victory party was put on hold. The oily mixture congealed to quickly to be properly tested for the viable hydrocarbons. And then, once again, the process the team had perfected refused to yield more results. This was an important lesson in the nature of scientific research that happened to be terribly frustrating.

Vitalgae Graphs

Boring looking graphs that say exciting things!

As the end of the school year and access to the Vitalgae photo-bioreactors started to come to a close, the Extraction team was stumped. The last week, however, yielded a trial that produced more of the coveted, unctuous green liquid. The last few days of testing and tweaking began with a clock ticking ominously in the Vitalgae lab. However, by the time came to present findings, the tests run on the product of super critical carbon dioxide extraction seemed promising. Though the test did not finish, the portion of the results that they had suggested that the product had the proper hydrocarbons to be sent to the awaiting “Cracking” team, the next step towards creating algae biofuel. Furthermone, the perceived failure of a number of runs of the experiment proved to be more than it appeared. After rinsing the algae material with a bit more supercritical carbon dioxide, the oily green liquid materialized.

The results of the frantic few weeks are a promising start on the next step of research, which many of the Vitalgae team hope to continue in the coming months. Learning from the mistakes of the past, and having hopefully grown more patient, the Extraction team looks forward to more green research in its future.

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