UToledo Chemical Engineer Awarded $3.2 Million to Advance Algae Biofuel Technology

August 17, 2021 | News, Research, UToday, Alumni, Engineering
By Christine Billau

The U.S. Department of Energy awarded The University of Toledo a $3.2 million grant to continue advancing technology that speeds up the capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to grow algae, a critical part of the process of turning algae into biofuel.

It’s part of $34 million announced by the Bioenergy Technologies Office to fund 11 projects nationwide that will develop biomass resources to convert to low-carbon fuel for planes and ships, lowering the carbon footprint of the transportation industry.

Dr. Sridhar Viamajala, professor of chemical engineering at The University of Toledo, in the greenhouse where his team of researchers is growing algae to turn into biofuel.

The UToledo award supports ongoing research by Dr. Sridhar Viamajala, professor of chemical engineering, to speed up production of microalgae using a farming technique called direct air capture that minimizes the loss of organic carbon, an issue that slows down algae production because algae need carbon dioxide to survive.

“This ‘direct air capture’ process uses alkaliphilic algae that like to grow in highly alkaline waters, which have a pH level above 10. Water is normally neutral at a pH of seven,” Viamajala said. “Because of their adaptation to these extreme environments, the alkaliphilic algae are protected from predators and other competing and contaminating organisms.”

The oils and carbohydrates produced by the algae, which use sunlight and nutrients to grow, can be turned into fuels and commodity goods such as plastics — products that are otherwise produced from petroleum.

“This technology improves sustainability by removing carbon dioxide while simultaneously creating pathways for the displacement of petroleum,” Viamajala said.

For example, Viamajala is collaborating with Montana State University and Ford Motor Co. on a separate project to make foams from algae to use as car seats in automobiles.

From right to left: Balakrishna Maddi, post-doctoral researcher in the UToledo Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering; Dr. Sridhar Viamajala, professor of chemical engineering; Kasun Kamburugamuwe, a master’s student in chemical engineering; and Sarah Pinchot, an undergraduate student working as a lab assistant on the project as she earns her degree in mechanical engineering.

“The University of Toledo is a nationally recognized leader in the research of biofuel energies and environmental resilience,” said U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur. “This vital partnership is recognition of the important role The University of Toledo plays and will help advance the critical technology breakthroughs necessary to power our cleaner, greener energy future.”

According to the Department of Energy, transportation accounts for approximately 30% of total U.S. energy consumption and generates the largest share of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“From food waste to yard trimmings, biomass technology is converting our everyday trash into low-carbon fuel for planes and ships while cutting costs and supporting our critical transportation sector,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. “The companies and universities leading these projects will ensure that our cutting-edge biofuel technologies reduce carbon emissions, create new jobs up and down the supply chain and are made in America by American workers.”

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