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Graduate student develops economically efficient way to turn microalgae into biofuel

Courtesy of Steve Sartori

Bendy Estime, a doctoral candidate in biomedical and chemical engineering at Syracuse University, has developed a new method of harvest microalgae.

A Syracuse University graduate student has developed technology to make the production of fuels from microalgae more efficient and economically viable.

Bendy Estime, a doctoral candidate in biomedical and chemical engineering, said his research stemmed from a fascination surrounding biofuel’s potential as a renewable energy source and the pursuit of a better earth for the future. He expressed concerns about global warming, saying that whether or not somebody believes in it, it will affect them in the future.

“It’s good to develop biofuel technology as well as other renewable energy for energy independence, but also for environmental stewardship and also as a way to look at sustainability and prepare a better future for tomorrow,” Estime said.

Microalgae is very versatile and can produce different types of biofuels, including ethanol, jet fuel and biodiesel.

“We can get different varieties of energy from microalgae, and it will be a matter of need and convenience to use microalgae to produce such energy,” Estime said.

In his research, Estime developed a new system for extracting microalgae from the solutions in which they grow. Previously, the organisms grown in a lab setting had a tendency to stick to the walls of their container and had to be stirred constantly.

His new solution can transition from liquid to gel, allowing for small changes in temperature and eliminating these issues.

The microalgae grow in the gel when it’s at a higher temperature, and the gel turns into a liquid when the temperature is decreased. That method allows the organisms to be harvested more easily than traditional methods because they grow in larger groups and are more easily extracted. It also saves on energy, making it more economically efficient than the current methods of growing and harvesting microalgae.

The new system will make microalgal biofuel more economically viable and cost-competitive with other forms of energy, such as petroleum, he said. Estime said he hopes the biofuels will be used in cars, jets and other energy-related sectors.

Microalgae isn’t limited to producing only fuel. Estime said microalgae can be manipulated to produce expensive chemicals to be used in pharmaceuticals.

Estime worked alongside his advisors — Dacheng Ren and Radhakrishna Sureshkumar, both professors in the department of biomedical and chemical engineering — to make microalgal biofuel cost-competitive with petroleum and other fossil fuels.

Microalgae needs light to grow and has a propensity for a specific kind of light to grow, Estime said. The filter helps the algae get that specific kind of light and optimizes microalgal cultivation.

Estime has been studying microalgae since his second semester at Syracuse University. He had experience in biofuel technology from his undergraduate studies, but he didn’t begin research until he started his graduate studies at SU in 2012. Estime was discussing potential research projects with one of his advisers, and together they came up with the idea to study microalgae as a means of energy production.

His desire to pursue renewable biofuels also comes from the finite amount of fossil fuels that dominate the energy sector, Estime said. He also expressed the need to seek out fuel alternatives before the wells run dry and prices skyrocket.

“There will be a day or a year or a decade that we will surely run out of fossil fuels or it will be scarce,” Estime said. “And generations before that, we need to start planning and lift the burden off the next generation. So it is important to the world and for generations to come that we have technologies like that.”

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