The Algae Biofuels Project

The use of fossil fuels has an undeniably ominous impact on the environment, and it is one of the most pressing environmental problems that our generation faces. Long time Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki put it accurately when he said: ” If we want to address global warming, along with the other environmental problems associated with our continued rush to burn our precious fossil fuels as quickly as possible, we must learn to use our resources more wisely, kick our addiction, and quickly start turning to sources of energy that have fewer negative impacts.” This project’s aim is coincides with the last part of Suzuki’s sentiment: increasing the use of renewable energy sources

Producing biodiesel from algae is a complex endeavor. In the simplest of terms, it consists of growing algae, using solvents to separate the oils, and reacting the oils with methanol and other reagents to form biodiesel. For more details on the methods used in the project, check out the Algae Biofuels project website.

The chapter decided to pursue making biodiesel from algae because algae has a higher oil content than other terrestrial plants like corn, and has smaller land requirements. What’s more, algae can be manipulated to have even higher oil content by applying strategically timed stressors. Thus, algae has the potential to have a very high yield of oil, which can then be used to make biofuels. 

The project has been active in ESW Berkeley for two years. The first year of the project was spent designing and constructing a photobioreactor. In Fall of 2015, project leader Julia Sawaya took over the project, and began by obtaining lab space in the Chemical Engineering Department for the project to explore methods of extracting biofuels from algae. During the last semester (Spring 2016), they have focused on refining their oil separation methods, and have even begun growing algae. 

Team presents at the 2016 ESW National Conference 4/9/2016. Katerina Harnetiaux, Julia Sawaya, Maureen Morla (left to right). 
Algae Biomass (bottom) and solvent (top).