Always Room for Biofuel

Photo: Randy Montoya While it may appear that Lucas Mcgrath, the researcher at Sandia National Labs in the picture, is preparing a giant serving of lime Jell-O, what you’re looking at is an organic mixture that could conceivably be used to power your car.

S Photo: Randy Montoya

While it may appear that Lucas Mcgrath, the researcher at Sandia National Labs in the picture, is preparing a giant serving of lime Jell-O, what you’re looking at is an organic mixture that could conceivably be used to power your car. Sandia researcher are growing green algae, which they think holds the potential for becoming biofuel.

The recipe includes taking the dairy effluent from cows and feeding it to the algae. Yes, that “effluent” is what you think it is. In New Mexico, where Sandia is located, there are some 340,000 dairy cows that are producing what is described as “large quantities fo manure and nutrient-rich effluent water.” But the algae process it and after several days, the algae is harvested and dewatered. The result is algal oil, which primarily consists of triacyglycerides which, although not so good for our arteries, are good for transformation into biofuel.

Explains Cecelia Williams, project lead at Sandia, “The current generation of biofuels”—starch- and sugar-based ethanol and oil crop-based biodiesel—“rely on the use of commodity crops, and therefore compete for use of food crops, primarily corn. Also, they are very farm-intensive and use a lot of good farming land, fuel and fertilizer inputs and fresh water.”

The dairy effluent certainly isn’t a commodity crop. It’s a commodity something else that sounds like “crop.” What’s more, she says that the algae can be grown in ponds on marginal land, ponds consisting of non-fresh brackish water that is leftover from mineral extraction, or wastewater from municipal and agricultural sources.

While all this sounds more like sausage-making—which you don’t want to see—than Jell-O preparation, it sounds like it could be a boon to farmers and drivers alike.