Aggie Researchers Work To Create The Fuel Of The Future

Algae, tobacco, the food scraps from a discarded cafeteria tray — they may seem like an unlikely club, but all of these items are playing major roles in the world’s hunt for suitable alternative fuels. The earth’s supply of fossil fuel continues to diminish and oil prices are skyrocketing. However,   Texas A&M researchers are convinced that by helping the earth give back to itself through converting natural products like these into fuel, they can revolutionize the world’s fuel consumption.


Algae can potentially produce 3,000-5,000 gallons of diesel or jet fuel per acre per year. Photo courtesy of Texas AgriLife Research

Using algae to fuel a jet or power a diesel truck may seem like a farfetched idea, but researchers at Texas AgriLife Research — a member of The Texas A&M University System — are well on their way to making it a reality.

The nation’s economy demands large quantities of fuel — the U.S. consumes more than 40 billion gallons of diesel a year, while the U.S. Air Force alone burns close to 3 billion gallons of jet fuel annually. But with the help of its Pecos Algae Research and Development Facility, a special algae test center in Pecos, Texas, Texas, AgriLife Research scientists are seeking to develop a technology involving microalgae that could potentially contribute to the United States’ energy security.

Algae is a particularly appealing natural product to transform into fuel because of its high oil content, researchers say. In addition to being renewable, it is a substance that can be produced on underutilized land with brackish water.

“Algae has the potential to produce about 3,000-5,000 gallons of diesel or jet fuel per acre per year, which is significantly more than most energy crops,” said Bob Avant, bioenergy program and corporate relations director at Texas AgriLife Research. “It would be produced on land and from water sources that are not being used for other agricultural production, so it would not compete with food production.”

Significant development work is underway by corporations, universities and federal agencies to transform algae into a commercial, economically viable energy crop, Avant added.

“Research is addressing a number of challenges to improve the production efficiency and reduce the cost,” he said. “Texas AgriLife Research is conducting a large program addressing issues such as increased biomass production and oil content, reduced construction and operating costs, improved separation technologies, and co-product development. This research is making significant progress toward commercialization of algae production, but it will be about five years before these technologies can be transferred into full-scale production.”

To read more about Texas AgriLife Research’s work transforming algae into fuel, visit here.

If Joshua Yuan has it his way, tobacco may soon find its way out of cigarettes and cigars and into the nation’s energy reserves.

Yuan, an assistant professor of plant pathology and microbiology at Texas A&M, has started investigating whether the plant can be used as a potential fuel source with the help of a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. If Yuan’s research succeeds within 18 months, the technology will be transferred to the giant reed, a fast-growing grass species, and nearly $2 million in additional funding from the Department of Energy will be awarded to the project.


A research team at Texas A&M hopes to create a tobacco plant that can produce and store high levels of terpene.

“The goal of our project is to make sure our country is the leader around the world in terms of energy and research,” Yuan said. “Energy independence and energy costs are all important considerations for our country.”

Yuan and his team are hoping to create a tobacco plant that can produce and store high levels of terpene — the fuel derivative of terpenoids, naturally occurring chemicals and hydrocarbons that are found in all living things that are responsible for many common scents and flavors in plants.

“It’s a very quick turnaround to make a plant in 18 months that will yield two percent of its dry weight in terpene, while improving the plant’s ability to both store and release the fuel,” Yuan said. “If we can do that, then the next phase is to increase the yield to 20 percent and transfer the technology to the reed.”

Reaching that yield in a mere three years is what could impact the nation’s energy supply, Yuan added. In fact, he believes the giant reed could be made to store enough fuel to make the technology economically feasible while not competing with the country’s cropland.

Yuan envisions a transformed industry — one where reeds grown for fuel could easily be squeezed out in nearly a ready-to-use form.

“Instead of going to oil fields, which are not sustainable, not only can we solve our problem of energy dependence and energy security, but also we will provide a solution for sustainable fuel production,” he said. “And it will be renewable for years to come.”

To watch a video of Yuan discussing his tobacco and giant reed research, visit here.

Food Scraps
Technology developed at Texas A&M is turning last night’s dinner leftovers into tomorrow’s gasoline, one plate at a time.

Mark Holtzapple, a chemical engineering professor, is the creator of MixAlco, a process that converts trash — like food scraps — into gasoline. The technology is already in practice and making a difference in fuel consumption — including at Texas A&M.

Last year, Texas A&M University Dining Services partnered with Terrabon, Inc., a company that uses the MixAlco process to create biofuels from post-consumer food scraps. Food waste is collected daily from Sbisa and Duncan Dining Halls, the two largest dining centers on campus. The scraps are stored in 55 gallon drums and are later picked up and brought to a Terrabon facility to undergo their transformation into gasoline.

The Aggie-developed technology has even spread to a Texas high school, where students are learning hands-on how their own cafeteria food scraps can become fuel.

For information on Holtzapple and the MixAlco process, visit here.


About 12 Impacts for 2012: 12 Impacts for 2012 is an ongoing series throughout 2012 highlighting the significant contributions of Texas A&M University students,faculty, staff and former students on their community, state, nation and world.


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