While renewable energy is typically thought of as a product of sun or wind, researchers at Colorado State University say byproducts of plant life may yet yield one of the more important sources of fuel over the next century.
The researchers are developing new methods to derive energy from algae and other plant life. Known as biofuels, the energy products not only offer an opportunity to power vehicles, they also can generate the polymers and chemical compounds necessary to create plastics and other petroleum-based products inherent in daily life.
The concept is not new. Researchers have known fuel could be derived from biofuels since the late 1970s. But at the Energy Institute — a one-of-a-kind energy research facility at CSU — researchers work to develop more efficient and economical methods for growing the plants, breaking down their molecules and processing the end product into oil and other chemicals.
“Today’s research revolves around reducing the cost of growing the algae and doing conversions. It’s also about making more valuable products from the algae that we’re growing,” said Ken Reardon, a professor in chemical and biological engineering at CSU. “We’re trying to get more out of an acre of land every year. That helps the economics. That also helps with the environmental impacts.”
The researchers work closely with companies developing new products from the plant-based compounds. Reardon said researchers currently work with companies that develop foam for the beds of sandals, synthetic fabrics for clothes and ink.
But while companies are making use of biofuels, the process of cultivation, separation and product development requires energy. Researchers say today’s energy research involves reducing the amount of energy required to turn algae into fuel.
“One of the difficulties is the scale in the way we use barrels of oil,” said Reardon. “We need to start growing algae at a reasonable fraction of that. It’s going to take some time. There’s value in every bit of it we offset. Everything we do at scale helps us learn to do more things at scale.”
What may push the envelope and lead to more viable biofuel solutions, said Reardon, is a cooperative arrangement facilitated by the Colorado Energy Research Collaboratory. The Collaboratory supports joint research between Colorado State University, the University of Colorado, the Colorado School of Mines and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The Collaboratory provides early funding for research projects that may eventually receive more substantial grants from the U.S. Department of Energy. The arrangement, which is unique to Colorado, is designed to leverage each institution’s strengths to achieve research objectives. Collectively, the participating Collaboratory institutions conduct over $1 billion in scientific and technological research each year.
“This idea of collaborative research is something I’m all in on,” said Reardon. “Each of the institutions is strong in lots of different areas. No one institution has claim on any one topic or on the energy issue as a whole. By bringing our resources together — our people, our infrastructure — we can do things that no one institution can do by itself.”
But while Colorado is a hub of coordinated energy research, Reardon said scientific breakthroughs will occur only in an environment of consistent policy-making.
“In the energy arena we have policies that go and come and then go up and down,” said Reardon. “If you’re an investor you need a 20-year horizon to reliably understand what’s going to happen in this sector — what the economic picture looks like so you know where to aim it.”
But Reardon said the prospects for success are bright and the potential to remake the world’s energy landscape is worth the effort.
“Algae as a starting point has far greater potential for being sustainable then you could ever have with petroleum,” said Reardon. “But beyond that there’s also the issue of what people would call energy security. It would be a lot nicer for the U.S., but not only the U.S., to know that we could rely on your own resources for our energy and fuel options.”