Researchers look to algae for fuel
It’s abundant, it’s cheap, it’s in our backyard — and Carmela Cuomo thinks it might fuel our cars one day.
Cuomo, coordinator of the University of New Haven’s marine biology program, is examining whether algae from
Long Island Sound can be harvested and cultivated to produce biodiesel fuel.
Institutes nationwide are investigating algae as a fuel source, including Arizona State, San Jose State and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cuomo said, and energy companies and the
U.S. Department of Defense have invested heavily in research.
But “no one else is looking at the Long Island Sound, as far as we know,” Cuomo said.
Though using algae for fuel is “a long way down the line,” the benefits are that it is available locally, cheap to collect, renewable and burns slightly cleaner than petroleum.
In fact, most petrol source rocks contain algae remains, Cuomo said.
“We’ve come full circle,” she said.
Cuomo’s research is funded by a $135,276 grant from the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology administered by the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
“One of the most interesting things was that it was a local resource,” said Elinor Hargreaves, an operations specialist at the center.
“Also, the committee looked at the potential for commercialization and technology.”
Cuomo and her team of graduate students combed the Sound Thursday for algae species
with 2 1/2-foot plankton nets attached to small glass beakers, designed to catch the larger specimens.
High school chemistry students from the Aquaculture Regional Vocational School in Bridgeport were on hand to watch the research.
“We’re going to isolate, under a microscope, ideally the ‘fattest’ algae,” Cuomo said.
The diatoms, a common form of algae or phytoplankton, have to carry enough recoverable fats, or lipids, to be converted to fuel, she said.
Lesley McGuffie, 22, who is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science, threw a net off the Catherine Moore, the 57-foot research vessel, and watched that the rope didn’t tangle.
The team estimates they will find 15 dominant species in their drags out of the hundreds of species in the Sound, McGuffie said.
Next, they will choose three species to grow, she said, and if all goes well — there is no guarantee the algae will respond — they could have 300 gallons within two weeks.
After 2 1/2 hours and five drags, the team came up with a thick green pasty algae they were itching to analyze, several hearty samples and one drag Cuomo called “slim pickings.”
For the five orange-capped sample jars, the boat traveled about five miles out of Black Rock Harbor, past St. Mary’s Point and into the water near Fairfield.
If Cuomo successfully identifies a worthwhile species for biodiesel, the next stage will be growing the algae outside of the Sound and infusing it with larger amounts of carbon dioxide.
“There is never going to be a ‘silver bullet’ or one crop,” she said.
Species of algae vary widely with location, so while the composition of a future biodiesel fuel may have similar ratios, production methods and original species likely will differ.
“Like grow local, it’s like grow fuel local,” she said.