Researchers have figured out how to make biodiesel and jet fuel from a single algae. This news release from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says Greg O’Neil of Western Washington University and Chris Reddy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, exploited an unusual and untapped class of chemical compounds in a common algae to make the two different fuel products at the same time.
“It’s novel,” says O’Neil, the study’s lead author. “It’s far from a cost-competitive product at this stage, but it’s an interesting new strategy for making renewable fuel from algae.”
Algae contain fatty acids that can be converted into fatty acid methyl esters, or FAMEs, the molecules in biodiesel. For their study, O’Neil, Reddy, and colleagues targeted a specific algal species called Isochrysis for two reasons: First, because growers have already demonstrated they can produce it in large batches to make fish food. Second, because it is among only a handful of algal species around the globe that produce fats called alkenones. These compounds are composed of long chains with 37 to 39 carbon atoms, which the researchers believed held potential as a fuel source.
Isochrysis had been dismissed by biodiesel makers because its oil is a dark, sludgy solid at room temperature, rather than a clear liquid that looks like cooking oil. But the researchers found a way to make biodiesel from the FAMEs in Isochrysis and then devised a method to separate the FAMEs and alkenones in order to achieve a free-flowing fuel. The method added steps to the overall biodiesel process, but it supplied a superior quality biodiesel, as well as “an alkenone-rich . . . fraction as a potential secondary product stream,” the authors write.
The scientists believe that by producing the two fuels from the single algae will help in commercializing the process.