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U.T. researchers breaking new ground in biofuels

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TWC News: U.T. researchers breaking new ground in biofuels
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With the price of gas still putting a serious dent in your pocketbook, the search for alternatives to fossil fuel is a priority for researchers.

Scientists at the University of Texas are making breakthroughs which could turn a common species of green algae named Chlorella into the newest source of diesel fuel for cars and trucks. The process is called “lysing.”

"It's been well-studied,” Dr. Rhykka Connelly with the U.T. Center for Electromechanics said. “It's known to produce significant amounts of oil under stress conditions."

As promising as algae may be, there are still a number of obstacles keeping it from being an economically viable alternative.

The process to extract the oil from the algae is the first challenge faced by researchers. The team at U.T. say they have developed a new cost-effective way to pull the oil from the Chlorella with a new device.

"Before (the procedure), they look nice and round, they look like little tennis balls. Afterwards, their cell walls are stripped off," Connelly said. "The pulse width is very short, making the power consumption very low, making this a very cost-effective way to bust open the algae."

Next, researchers are faced with the challenge to separate the oil from the organic matter without using poisonous solvents. The U.T. team says they’ve figured that out as well.

"There's absolutely no contact with the solvents that are used to remove the algae oil,” Connelly said.

The last hurdle is to grow enough algae to be able to scale up the process. A company involved in the project called AlgEternal designed what they call an “algae reactor”.

"At peak capacity, we'll be able to offer the University of Texas Center for Electromechanics approximately five thousand gallons a day," Michael Jochum with AlgEternal said.

All of the equipment used by the U.T. team to turn the algae into oil is compact enough to fit inside of a trailer.

"We can go to any location, back up to that pond and pump in green pond water,” Mike Werst with U.T. said. “We go through the electromechanical lysing. Then we have an oil separation unit where we literally have oil dripping out the other end."

The end product is similar to vegetable oil and still needs to be refined, but thanks to the work here at UT, algae-based biofuels may soon be a viable replacement for fossil fuels.

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