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UT receives grant to build algae biofuels research facility at Scott Park Campus

A research and development facility for algae biofuels soon will be built on The University of Toledo Scott Park Campus of Energy and Innovation.

This rendering by SSOE Group shows the Center for Algal Engineering Research and Commercialization that will be built on the Scott Park Campus of Energy and Innovation and include open ponds, ponds in a greenhouse and enclosed photobioreactors to test the efficiency of different growth systems. It also will have pilot-scale capabilities of converting the algae materials grown there into fuel.

This rendering by SSOE Group shows the Center for Algal Engineering Research and Commercialization that will be built on the Scott Park Campus of Energy and Innovation and include open ponds, ponds in a greenhouse and enclosed photobioreactors to test the efficiency of different growth systems. It also will have pilot-scale capabilities of converting the algae materials grown there into fuel.

The pilot-scale facility is part of a research project recently awarded a nearly $3 million grant through the Ohio Third Frontier Wright Projects Program that links research capabilities of Ohio colleges, universities and nonprofit research institutions with the needs of industry in the state.

Ohio University and UT are leading the three-year Center for Algal Engineering Research and Commercialization project that has a dozen collaborators, including many Ohio businesses involved in the energy industry.

For UT’s part, the half-acre facility at Scott Park will be constructed to include open ponds, ponds in a greenhouse and enclosed photobioreactors to test efficiency of a variety of growth systems. The facility also will have pilot-scale “downstream processing” capabilities where the algae materials could be converted to fuel — a complete system, said Dr. Sridhar Viamajala, UT assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering and a principal investigator of the project.

“What we would like is not only for University researchers to use the facility, but also to invite our business partners to come here and test their ideas,” Viamajala said. “We will look at what types of strains produce the best types of fuel, optimal ways to grow them, and the most economical approaches for conversion of feedstock into fuel.”

The oil from algae can be used to make fuel, just as soybean and vegetable oil can, but the difference is that algae are not a food source. Algae don’t need clean water or high-quality land to grow, and because they are simple, single-celled organisms, they grow much faster than more complicated plants, Viamajala said.

But creating fuel from algae is not yet done commercially. This research project will help advance the best practices of doing so and put Ohio on the map in this field.

Dr. David Bayless, Ohio University’s Loehr Professor of Mechanical Engineering, said UT’s role is instrumental in the research project because it will create a place for researchers and industry to test different aspects of algae. OU already has such a facility and will increase its analysis through this project, Bayless said.

“Ohio is in a race with the southwestern states when it comes to algae,” he said. “But Ohio has something they don’t — fresh water. You need a lot of water to grow algae, and at The University of Toledo the plan is to focus on Lake Erie algae that are adapted to local environmental conditions.”

UT College of Engineering Dean Dr. Nagi Naganathan said the ability to facilitate vibrant university-industry partnerships will accelerate the development and growth in the field of algal biofuels.

“Rather than having our University researchers do their own testing in the lab and the businesses doing their own development, we will combine our resources for the greater benefit,” Naganathan said. “This will allow real-world testing that isn’t being done now, and we can only imagine the quality and quantity of products that will materialize from this partnership. This is especially pleasing to see one of our young faculty members, Dr. Viamajala, actively engage and lead such an important technology transfer and economic development initiative.”

Naganathan also recognized the support from several individuals that made this possible: Chuck Lehnert, vice president for facilities and construction; Dr. Frank Calzonetti, vice president for research and development; and Tony Damon, CEO of SSOE Inc., and his staff.

“This has been truly a team effort,” Naganathan said.

The additional partners on the state algal biofuels project are: Algae Producers of America, Center for Innovative Food Technologies, Recombinant Innovation, Harrison County Engineer, Red Lion Bio-Energy, Midwest Biorenewables, Lubrizol, Independence Bio-Products, Tri-County Career Center, Parker Hannifin and Univenture.

The Ohio Third Frontier Wright Projects Program awarded a total of more than $20 million in funding to advance the state’s key technology sectors by supporting improvements to colleges, universities and research institutions, which in turn support the commercialization objectives of Ohio companies.

“Our colleges, universities and research institutions are developing Ohio’s next entrepreneurs, and the Ohio Third Frontier is connecting our students with the technologies of the future,” Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said. “The Wright Projects Program is helping prepare Ohioans for the new kinds of jobs our economy is creating.”