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University of Texas at Austin Biologists and Engineers in $25 Million Project to Develop Jet Fuel from Algal Oil

Biologists and engineers at The University of Texas at Austin have been selected to be a part of a $25 million project that would transform algal oil to jet fuel.

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Biologists and engineers at The University of Texas at Austin have been selected to be a part of a $25 million project that would transform algal oil to jet fuel.

Algal feedstock is considered one of the best sources for biofuel. It is renewable, does not compete with food crops and grows in wet or dry environments using brackish water or treated wastewater. Furthermore, algae use carbon dioxide as a food source, which means greenhouse gases can be converted back to energy.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is sponsoring the project to develop jet fuel, known as JP-8, for military use from biological sources. Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) in Marietta, Ga., is overseeing the project. Al Mondelli of SAIC is the program manager of the project. The project team involves many other entities, each chosen for a specific area of expertise that will contribute to the success of the project.

Researchers are developing solutions to economically scale up the algal culturing techniques and to harvest algae economically and efficiently and to make the transition from lab to land once the suitable strains, techniques and permits are available.

At The University of Texas at Austin, the scope of the project includes identifying the best strains of algae for producing oil from sites in Texas and from the university’s algal culture collection, harvesting the algal strains, breaking the algal cells to extract oil, purifying the algal oil for jet fuel production and exploring uses and markets for waste by-products from the process.

The members of the Texas team have conducted groundbreaking algae research in applied areas of science and engineering for years. The university is home to one of the world’s largest collections of algae, UTEX, the Culture Collection of Algae. It has more than 3,000 strains and supplies them to scientists around the world.

Researchers at the university have already developed an electromechanical process for extracting oil from an alga cell that is rapid, energy-efficient, free of solvents and less expensive than competing methods. The technique employs electric fields to break open the cell.

Another group of researchers at the university is focused on the science of separations research and is identifying techniques to separate the oil from the algae biomass once it has been released.

“This multi-disciplinary project reflects the depth and diversity of the university’s research resources,” said Juan Sanchez, vice president for research at the university. “This research can change the world by bringing online a homegrown, renewable supply of fuel.”

The DARPA project is expected to spark commercial development of jet fuel for military and commercial applications and possibly diesel fuel for land transportation. One of the project’s goals is to produce algal oil-based jet fuel on a large scale at a cost to the user of $3 a gallon. The current cost of a gallon of diesel fuel made from algae ranges from $10-$20 a gallon.

The university’s principal investigators on the project are K. Sathasivan from the School of Biological Sciences, Kerry Kinney from the Environment and Water Resources Engineering program, A. Frank Seibert from the Separations Research Program and Mike Werst from the Center for Electromechanics.

Other team members from the university are Jerry Brand, Stanley Roux, Mona Mehdy and David Herrin from the School of Biological Sciences; Bob Hebner from the Center for Electromechanics; and Lynn Katz and Gerald Speitel from the Environment and Water Resources Engineering program.

“This DARPA award provides a major opportunity for Texas and the nation to develop the technologies needed to build a commercially viable algal biofuel industry,” said Sathasivan, the project’s principal investigator at the university.

Sathasivan said that the university’s strong scientific foundation in the biological and engineering aspects of this project will ensure success in the quest to create methods for the large-scale production of algal oil to make jet fuel in collaboration with industry.