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All of a sudden, algae has become a hot topic in American society in general — and on University of Texas campuses in particular. That’s because the single-celled varieties of this aquatic life are increasingly being touted as an alternative energy source, particularly for transportation fuel. Some forms of algae convert solar energy into an oily substance (called lipids) that can be processed into a biofuel capable of running combustion engines like those in cars, trucks, even airplanes. As long as man can grow algae — in ponds, for example — he can produce more fuel directly from the sun’s energy. Thus, algae are potentially one of the simplest and cheapest sources of energy.
One beneficiary of, and asset to, this growing interest is the Culture Collection of Algae at UT Austin; with nearly 3000 strains growing in a space about the size of an average living room, it’s the largest and most diverse collection in the world. The center sells samples for $75. Until recently, according to director Jerry Brand, their customers were primarily plant and algal research scientists and students working on science projects. But with energy efficiency and “green” fuels at the center of so much current research, “Interest has exploded to the point where it’s hard to keep up with orders,” Brand says. “It’s a largely untapped resource that has only recently received a great deal of attention as a potential source of fuel. Nobody has shown yet that algae can economically produce large volumes of biofuel in a stable way.” But theoretical calculations and small-scale experiments indicate that it can, and many people are out to prove so: more than half the orders Brand now receives, from around the world, are from researchers seeking to create algae-derived biofuels. Brand figures we’re still more than five years away from producing commercial quantities.
Kyle Murray, an assistant professor of geology at UT San Antonio, believes it will happen quicker, and he wants to make the Alamo City a production center for algae-based biofuels. Murray has received funding that will enable him and his students to identify the various local algal organisms and take them to labs where their growth rate can be measured, their nutrient requirements determined and their ability to produced lipids gauged. Then a pilot program could be established whereby the most viable local organisms would be put into a pond system in south San Antonio and grown like a farm product; likewise, a photobiological reactor could be used to cultivate purchased strands of algae (such as those in Brand’s Culture Collection) that are known to produce large amounts of lipids. Murray believes San Antonio is an ideal locale for algae-farming because the area receives considerable sunlight and is relatively humid (which keeps the ponds from evaporating), while land for the ponds is relatively inexpensive there. “The city’s centrally located enough that we can send the product to Corpus Christi and Houston to have it refined,” he points out, and there are also potential customers in San Antonio, namely, the military.”
In The Future of Energy, Scott W. Tinker, director of UT Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology, and other higher-education experts discuss the world’s impending energy crisis. In “Outliving the Oil Era,” his profile on the State of Tomorrow Web site, Tinker stresses the need for an orderly transition from oil to greener sources of energy including solar, wind and algae.