When it is growing on the shores of Lake Erie, algae can be a problem. Agricultural waste runoff can feed algal blooms that harm fishermen and swimmers and make the water unsafe to drink and costly to clean.
But in a test-bed, innovative research at The University of Toledo is helping to use the same wastewater grow algae for biofuel production.
Over the last two months, UT researchers have won $4 million in nationally competitive awards from the federal government to explore ways society can benefit from algae’s hunger for phosphorus-rich wastewater.
“The problem with biofuels based on food stocks is that they take a relatively long time to grow and what you are making into biofuels for vehicles and other uses clearly you cannot eat,” said Dr. Sridhar Viamajala, assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering in UT’s College of Engineering.
“Algae is not a food stock, grows very fast, and with the research we’re conducting, we hope to create a cheap, natural process for recycling wastewater while creating a cleaner burning fuel.”
Last week, Viamajala and his colleague Dr. Sasidhar Varanasi, UT professor of chemical and environmental engineering, were awarded $3 million by the U.S. Department of Energy. This is on top of a $1 million award from the National Science Foundation in July that they secured along with Dr. Kana Yamamoto, UT assistant professor of chemistry.
Viamajala said that UT is partnering with researchers at Montana State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on both grants. For the Department of Energy grant, the universities also are working with the city of Logan, Utah, and the private firm Advanced Algae Solution in Cleveland.
“Especially in northwest Ohio, any time you hear about algae, it is often about how the algae is disrupting the lives of residents and costing taxpayers money,” said Dr. Nagi Naganathan, dean of the UT College of Engineering.
“Drs. Viamajala and Varanasi are championing technological innovations to use wastewater to skillfully manage a biological pest and create biofuel — a resource vital to the energy independence of this nation, while simultaneously improving the quality of life of our citizens. It is a perfect example of how The University of Toledo and UT’s engineers and scientists are conducting innovative research to shrink our dependence on fossil fuels — one of the most pressing societal issues of our time.”
“Awards from this program are very competitive, and bringing together a strong multi-university team is a good strategy to leverage the strengths of several partners to win at the national level,” said Diane Miller, UT assistant vice president for federal relations. “The fact that UT is leading this effort raises our national profile as a research university with particular strengths in advanced energy.”
University of Toledo, press release, 2012-09-13.