Successful ‘green crude’ program at TU receives $750,000 in funding

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Algae biofuels a great fit for Oklahoma energy industry, TU specialization in downstream energy research

The University of Tulsa will receive $750,000 from the federal government to expand and improve its fast-growing research program that takes algae and refines it into gasoline.

The funding comes from an appropriation in the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act recently approved by the U.S. Congress. Sen. Jim Inhofe and Rep. John Sullivan led the effort to strengthen sustainable biofuels research in Oklahoma.

The TU Department of Chemical Engineering will use the money to expand its work in optimizing the algae-to-fuel conversion process, improve technical equipment and hire additional research staff. It also plans to recruit and fund graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to aid in algae fuel experiments.

Senator Inhofe called this appropriation an important investment in our energy and economic future.

“Thanks in part to the important research being conducted by The University of Tulsa, making fuels from algae has demonstrated significant potential as a technically and economically viable green fuel,” Inhofe said.

Congressman Sullivan said the funds will spur economic development and promote alternative fuel research in Oklahoma.

“Oklahoma has long been a national leader in the energy industry, and I am proud of the work being done right here in the First District…to ensure our state continues to play a role in the research and development of alternative fuels and promoting energy efficiency,” Sullivan said.

Sapphire Energy, Inc., a leading alternative energy company, partnered with TU in 2007 to produce gasoline from components that make up “green crude,” an oil derived from algae that can be used in similar ways to crude oil. TU chemical engineering faculty developed a patent-pending refining process for Sapphire Energy’s green crude in 2008, and TU researchers have succeeded in turning algae into high-octane gasoline.

“The whole philosophy is totally different from other alternative fuel projects,” said Geoffrey Price, chemical engineering professor and chair of the department. “This isn’t biodiesel or ethanol. It’s gasoline, just made from another source.”

Algae also absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2), creating a carbon-neutral cycle that removes an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as are emitted from cars. To produce algae takes only three inputs — sunlight, CO2 and photosynthetic microorganisms (like algae) — and does not require large amounts of fertilizer, farmland or fresh water.

“Algae can grow almost anywhere. The exciting thing about this project is that we aren’t using any cropland to produce the algae, and the process can use non-potable water and non-arable land,” said Daniel Crunkleton, associate professor of chemical engineering and director of TU’s Institute of Alternative Energy.

With research and development, fuel made from algae has the potential to produce about 50 percent of the transportation fuel requirements of the entire country by 2020, using 24 million acres of land. This contrasts with ethanol production from corn, which yields only four percent of U.S. fuel requirements using the equivalent amount of land.

Green crude is compatible with the existing petroleum infrastructure, from refinement through distribution and the retail supply chain. That downstream compatibility is one of the many advantages that caught Price’s attention. As a 30-year veteran researching important processes in the oil refining industry, he knew that alternative fuels could more easily become mainstream if they conformed to the manufacturing and distribution system already in place.

“In addition to difficulties making and using other proposed fuels such as ethanol, biodiesel and hydrogen, we would also need to overhaul the existing downstream system to use them,” Price said. “Green crude can be refined at existing refineries, the products can be transported in existing pipelines, sold at gas stations and used in existing vehicles. That’s one of the keys to bridging the gap between fossil and renewable fuels.”

Fuels derived from green crude were used successfully in several test flights with the commercial airlines Continental and JAL in January 2009. Green crude also fueled the Algaeus, a Toyota Prius that in September became the world’s first hybrid vehicle to cross the United States on algae-based renewable gasoline.

About the University of Tulsa
Ranked among the top 100 universities in the nation, The University of Tulsa is a private institution providing comprehensive educational opportunities to more than 4,100 graduate and undergraduate students in the arts, business, engineering, the sciences and law. Our students thrive in the university’s rigorous programs that feature personalized attention, small class sizes and low student-to-faculty ratio. TU has distinguished itself as a national leader in several key disciplines including petroleum engineering, alternative fuel development, cybersecurity and energy management.

Amethyst Cavallaro