Ross School - Senior Project 2008-09

Student: Alex Collier

Mentor: Carleton Schade

Title: Algae Biofuel


For my Senior Project I utilized algae to extract bio diesel. First, I grew large amounts of a specific type of algae that has high lipid content (fat oils), and then I filtered it through a 10-micron filter to extract just the algae from the base water it grew in. From there I extracted the oil using the hexane extraction solvent method in which a catalyst of sodium hydroxide and hexane are combined to separate the oil from the bodies of the algae. Lastly, I allowed this mixture to distill, allowing the oil to rise to the top, leaving the hexane on the bottom and the catalyst disappeared. I drained just the oil, then further refined the mulch the same way you refine regular bio diesel from waste vegetable oil. This includes straining the mixture to further remove particles and extracting glycerin.



Algae Derived Biodiesel Paper


Images (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)


For my senior project I chose to research and produce Biofuel derived from algae. I chose to pursue this field because Algae could theoretically meet all our liquid fuel needs in the near future. Algae biofuel at this stage is an emerging industry that has not yet reached the production stage.

I live near the water and I have a deep appreciation for our natural surroundings, because I enjoy boating and other activities on the water I wish to preserve our natural resources. Also I wanted to explore scientific experimentation that has practical applications, and tackle an important problem society is faced with today, finding new sources of energy.

I would like to talk about the global context of my project. Although there remains some debate on precise figures, the scientific consensus on global petroleum reserves is that maximum peak oil production will be reached soon, and then will fall. We are basically running out of oil, demand has exceeded supply. Therefore prices will rise and economies will be heavily impacted. As you can see here, even by today’s most optimistic figures oil production will reach its peak at the year 2047, and then prices will rise.

The scientific consensus is carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are warming the earth and leading to climate change. This will affect economies, biological diversity, and our ability to feed ourselves. The red line shows carbon dioxide levels and the blue line shows global temperature, both rising exponentially.

This diagram shows that corn, is increasingly grown as a fuel crop and thus competes with corn grown for food; therefore food prices all over the world are on the rise. Growing algae doesn’t compete for arable land, for example it can be grown in deserts.

Algae oil can be distributed through existing infrastructure such as pipes, tanker trucks, and gas stations. Therefore the transition to algae fuel should be easy.

The goals of my project were to cultivate algae and then extract oil from the algae, and to write a scientific paper describing my research, my laboratory work, and my results.  

First I had to grow the algae; I enlisted the help of my outside consultant, Barley Dunn, at the Montauk Hatchery. He taught me the protocol for algae cultivation and gave me a nutrient mix for my project. He helped me choose the strain; choosing the right strain is important because of the need for algae with a high oil content. I chose the Tetraselmuis chui strain of algae because it grows in saltwater and has high oil content.

The nutrients. At the hatchery they use a stockfish feed nutrient mix available at aquarium supply stores, Barley provided with a sufficient amount of this mix to grow the algae at my house.

In order to kill any containments or bacteria that may be present in the beaker or the nutrient/salt water mix, the beakers are heated until they reach boiling.

After cooling down to room temperature a small amount of algae was added with a pipette. Optimally in the right growth conditions the culture will double in size every day for 10 days, then it will be ready to be harvested.

Here is my algae growing in my basement. I grew 10 500 milliliter beakers, and 6 1000 milliliter beakers. It took 10 days for complete cultivation. – After researching optimal growth temperature I determined that my basement provided the best climate available to me, after trying several paces on the Ross campus. By placing cultures under both 12-hour light and 12 hour darkness, and 24 hour light, I determined that 12 hour dark and 12 hour light periods produced the most algae.

After I cultivated the algae then came the hard part, extracting the algae from the oil. 20 percent of algae is oil, so I had to find a process to remove just the algae oil.  It was difficult to locate the appropriate technical articles. Partly because the extraction process often is an industrial secret. The papers were technical and difficult to read. I tried four different methods:

First I Used electricity to extract the algae from the oil through a battery charger that provided a direct current. I used two nails as electrodes and stuck them into a beaker of the mixture. It produced a golden oily liquid that is presumed to be fatty acids, sugars, and oil. I did not pursue this avenue of extraction further. The extraction produces an unknown liquid; I would have had to analyze this to determine its content, making the process more difficult.

Then I tried to freeze the samples: The algae is trapped in the cell walls, therefore I though that by freezing the cultures the cell walls would break open. They did not. Nothing was gained by freezing the algae.

I then tried separating the algae from the water with a series of different size micron filters. This is the first step towards extraction, getting the algae from the water. The algae was 6-10 microns wide so I tried 5 micron filters and 10 micron filters. This method failed. Some algae got caught in the filter, but I could not scrape it off the surface of the filters.

Finally I tried the Hexane Chemical Process: After reading several scientific papers I decided to try a chemical process using Hexane. I contacted several retailers but they had it back ordered. My mom, after some research, located a Hexane source. Deadlines were fast approaching and the chemical took several weeks to arrive, this posed a significant delay and contributed to the lateness of my project.

The first step was to boil the algae water down to remove all of the water. Then the algae and salt left from the saltwater was ground in a mortar with a pestle to break down the cell walls of the algae.

The algae/salt mixture was then added to a 1 liter soda bottle and mixed with hexane . The mixture was allowed to settle for 12 hours so that the hexane could soak up all of the oil from the algae. The solids were then filtered from the hexane with a coffee filter, and the hexane/oil mixture was allowed to sit outside for 12 hours. The hexane evaporated completely, and I was left with pure algae oil.

Here is a quote from the Ana laboratories assessment of my product. ¨“We have performed a comprehensive analysis of your biodiesel blend product. The product meets or exceeds most specifications of the current industry standards.  In our view, your product is suitable for commercial use.”

My final paper is nearly 20 pages single-spaced and entails substantial references which required me to read complex  scientific papers. Graphs displaying different variables, pictures displaying my process, an appendix with the laboratories anayalsis, and mathematical equations. Through mathematical equations I determined that my technique requires a lot more energy to produce then it can create. Therefore my technique needs a lot more work to become viable. Currently no one has been able to produce algae biofuel in a way that can be economically feasible.

I faced many challenges throughout my project, both in the scientific process and writing my paper. Throughout the research stage I had trouble determining extraction methods because of the complexity of the scientific articles I researched. Also because algae biofuel is an emerging industry a lot of the information was not readily available because it is considered trade secrets. I had trouble allocating enough time for the scientific process; because I repeatedly encountered failures in my extraction methods my product was repeatedly delayed. The availability of hexane also posed a significant obstacle; because it was back-ordered, valuable time was wasted waiting for its arrival. I was not prepared for the plethora of drafts required for a proper scientific paper, and continued revisions took much longer then I expected.


Works Cited

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Community Member (Details)

Barley Dunn is a marine biologist at the Montauk Hatchery and oversees their clam cultivation.