Professor explores algae as fuel source

Nicole Sanseverino

Jerry Brand’s algae collection, with nearly 2,800 specimens in all, is more than just pond scum. The diverse range of organisms is part of a growing multi-hundred billion dollar industry, used to produce anything from supplements to ice cream thickener to dental impressions and most recently, alternative biofuel, he said.

Brand, a professor in the College of Natural Sciences, spoke to students, faculty and community members about the potential of algal research Monday at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center as part of the Texas Enterprise Speaker Series hosted by the McCombs School of Business.

Brand’s collection of algae, UTEX, is the largest and most diverse in the world. ExxonMobil, British Petroleum and the U.S. Navy are just some of the most recent visitors to the lab, located at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus.

These oil giants have been flocking to the lab to study alternative sources of biofuel, said Katy Hackerman, a spokeswoman for the College of Natural Sciences.

Scientists have looked at many different sources of biofuels, mostly various types of plants that provide ethanol, Brand said. Scientists found that crops such as sugar and corn could be turned into fuel, but both caused market prices to go up and disrupted the environment, he said.

“So algae seems to be the only real alternative to those right now,” Brand said. “Algae can be grown on a large scale on land that isn’t good for anything else and very quickly, so economically, [algae] looks like the far most probable source of biofuels to substitute for petroleum sources right now.”

He said algae looks so promising that ExxonMobil has spent more than $600 million to figure out how to turn algae into fuel.

Monday marked a milestone for algae research. Algae fueled the first U.S. passenger flight to use advanced biofuels. The United Continental flight from Houston to Chicago ran on algae fuel blended with standard, petroleum-derived jet fuel.
Brand said the flight is a very exciting step forward in demonstrating algae’s possibilities.

“So far, what it’s proven is that oil that comes from algae will drive cars, trucks, airplanes and boats just as well as conventional sources that we get out of the ground,” Brand said. “But so far, what hasn’t been shown convincingly is that it can be done competitively.”

Brand said turning algae into fuel can be expensive. A barrel of petroleum costs around $100, whereas Brand estimates algae fuel would cost upwards of $1,000 per barrel.

“I think we’ve come a long way, but I think we still have a lot of hurdles to overcome,” Brand said. “Algae isn’t there yet, but it’s a very exciting horizon.”

Additional research and communication will be required to grow algae on larger scales, Brand said. Other UT researchers are working on projects to make use of algae. David Laude, dean of the College of Natural Sciences, credited Brand’s algae collection as giving way to some of these other research projects.

“If you are careful in keeping these [collections], the day will come when you realize it starts to be a real payoff, that there is real potential in what you might be able to do with it,” Laude said. “So today’s talk is in particular about that potential, the commercialization possibilities from what we can do with algae as we take on our energy issues.” 

Printed on Tuesday, November 8, 2011 as: Algae holds future potential for biofuel