UC Davis colleagues are involved in a new joint project with an agency in Japan to explore new ways of creating biofuels for regular use, especially for use by automobiles, trucks and jets.
“Oil reserves won’t last forever,” said Oliver Fiehn, the director of the Metabolomics Research and Core Laboratories in the UC Davis Genome Center and research leader of the new project.
The goal of the joint project is to combine “perfect science and perfect application,” Fiehn said.
Biofuel technology involves the science of growing organisms and then extracting molecules that can be changed into a combustible form for fuel use, according to John Labavitch, a professor in the UC Davis Plant Sciences Department.
Using algae as biofuel in an industrial setting is a relatively new area of study. The problem of developing an industrial process of growing algae as a biofuel source is a long-term goal that cannot be accomplished by any one specific research project at the present time.
“There are some obvious difficult points that must be addressed,” in order to create a workable process, Labavitch said .
One of the biggest engineering obstacles to be overcome is finding an appropriate place to grow algae that does not compete with regular food production. Jean VanderGheynst, a professor in the UC Davis Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department, who is also working on the project, says that the ocean would be an ideal place to grow algae to be used for biofuels, since the ocean would provide for a steady temperature.
“Think of enormous bags filled with algae where you have the algae being pumped through chambers in the surface,” VanderGheynst said.
VanderGheynst and Labavitch have also been working together for the past three years, using funding from Chevron, to study the most effective ways to grow algae and use their component molecules as biofuel sources.
Another option would be growing algae in special pools in the desert, explains Labavitch.
“Algae grow very fast — in a week or two. You can harvest them and start again,” Labavitch said, thus creating a quick and efficient turnaround time.
Ethanol made from corn was the first biofuel developed for use on an industrial scale. Many scientists, though, are dissatisfied with ethanol due to its many drawbacks.
“Ethanol corrodes motors, pipelines and it’s not a high-density fuel,” Fiehn said. “We need to get better and bolder than that.”
The low energy density of ethanol makes it unsuitable for use as a jet fuel, Fiehn emphasized. Also, corn grown for ethanol production is grown on land, competing with food production.
“Algae don’t compete with agricultural land use,” Fiehn said.
VanderGheynst is hopeful about finding a way to more easily extract molecules from algae that can be converted to combustible form.
“Certain algae will secrete lipid, so that you don’t need to break the cell wall open, and that would be a tremendous savings to the process,” she said.
The new joint project involves a strong orientation toward research in basic science, as evidenced by the large chemical pathway chart on the wall of the conference room in Fiehn’s lab — a chart that is packed with intricately connected lines and symbols denoting various types of molecules and the chemical reactions that they undergo in various contexts.
“It’s like a big street map,” Fiehn said. “If I want more traffic to go to San Francisco and less to Sacramento, then close Interstate 5, what happens?”
Fiehn explained that the Japanese funders are more focused on the possible technological fruits of the project, while the National Science Foundation, which is providing funding for the US side, is focused at this point more on the basic research angle.
BRIAN RILEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.