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AFA team experiments with turning algae into jet fuel

May 28, 2011

Green goo has taken over a lab at the Air Force Academy, filling beakers, plastic bags and a fish tank.

The slime is doubling in size every day amid a breeding frenzy, constantly growing in ominously bubbling tanks.

It’s not a horror movie.

To the Air Force, the algae, tiny sea plants that live in mind-boggling quantity in the world’s oceans, is the future of fuel.

Donald Veverka, director of the academy’s Life Sciences Research Center has been lovingly tending to the slime for months. In his Fairchild Hall lab. He’s trying to determine the growing properties of algae obtained around the globe.

“Our job is to take the culture and look at ways to foster growth,” Veverka said.

While microscopically small, each algae plant contains oils similar to those found in soybeans. By growing hundreds of trillions of algae cells, the Air Force hopes to find independence from petroleum.

That future is years or decades away, but it is full of tantalizing promise.

Each algae cell is like a miniature chemical plant. Like larger plants, the algae consume carbon monoxide and dioxide and emit oxygen. Along the way, the simple plants make surprisingly complex hydrocarbons, a building block for plastics, oils and fuels.

“It’s a renewable source of energy,” Veverka said.

With Air Force research grants, cadets and Veverka are tackling one of algae’s toughest conundrums – how to grow enough of the plants to create a steady fuel source.

In algae, as with people, you are what you eat. For the algae, though, junk food is a good thing.

Veverka’s team is fattening up the algae using gases including carbon monoxide – now seen as an environmental villain that has been indicted as a cause of global warming.

The future could hold vast pools of green slime outside power plants and other industrial facilities that feed on exhaust emissions and convert them to a new green fuel.

“The idea is that you don’t create any new carbon emissions,” Veverka said.

Algae also like to live in water that would scare most swimmers.

Sewage is no problem and many chemicals that wind up in water – such as the nitrogen runoff from fertilized fields and industrial phosphate discharges, are beneficial to algae.

Algae has other advantages over such biofuels as corn, sugar cane and soybeans.

Harvesting the bigger plants means firing up a diesel-fueled combine and hauling the bounty to a refining plant.

Algae can grow anywhere there’s water, so it would not have to be shipped. Harvest means pumping off the deepest slime.

Top Air Force brass are fascinated with the experiment. One of the service’s top expenses is the fuel bill for its fleet of planes.  Cheaper, environmentally-friendly fuel would save big bucks and meet the government’s need to go green.

But don’t start saving for an algae-fueled fighter jet just yet.

Algae grows fast, but harnessing its potential will take time.

“We are no where near being able to produce algae fuel on the base,” Veverka said.

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