According to a recent study published in the journal Energy & Fuels, an algae commonly cultivated as fish food could be a potential alternative source for the production of biodiesel and jet fuel. Western Washington University’s, Greg O’Neil and Chris Reddy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, led the research into the previously untapped class of chemical compounds produced by the algae which may have the ability for synthesis of fuel products. This revolutionary research theorizes the production of 2 different fuel types from a single algae.
Lead research scientist, Greg O’Neal admits that this idea is novel and in no way at a stage where costs can accurately be evaluated or compared: “…but it’s an interesting new strategy for making renewable fuel from algae.” Algal organisms contain fatty acids that can be converted into FAMEs, Fatty Acid Methyl-Esters, which are active ingredients of biodiesel. For this research, members of the Isochrysis genus of algae were selected because species within this genus are among only a handful of algaes which produce alkenones additionally they are also proven to be easily generated in large quantities.
Alkenones are fats which are composed of long chains of 37 to 39 carbon atoms, which the researchers believe to be a potential fuel source. These algae may have been overlooked as potential sources by previous biofuel producers due to the thick, oily, sludgy appearance at room temperature; rather than the cooking-oil type looks of more popular sources. However, it is this sludge that sets Isochrysis apart from other potential sources, the alkenones responsible for its thick, darkness are precisely what makes it a unique source for 2 fuel products.
Oceanographers are quite familiar with the genus of interest, Isochyrsis act as a bioindicators; their structure morphs in response to changing water temperatures. This has provided a historical context for sea surface temperature variations and aids in data extrapolation. Biofuel prospectors are not usually also oceanographers, and so had no reason to be interested in these species directly.
Reddy and O’Neil first collaborated on producing biodiesel from the FAMEs generated by these unique organisms. In order to produce a free-flowing fuel they had to first figure out how to extract the FAMEs and alkenones. This necessary first step is not necessary with more conventional biofuel sources, but the end product is higher quality product, according to the research team. For more information about this study and continued research into algal alternatives for biofuel visit: http://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/jet-fuel-from-algae.