New Mexico State University is working to transform bubbling pools of algae into both a sustainable source for fuel as well as a sustainable industry for New Mexico. To complement this research, NMSU is now also growing its own algae in slime-filled vats called “raceway reactors” at the university’s Fabian Garcia Science Center in Las Cruces.

“At NMSU, we’ve developed significant expertise in the algal biofuel area over the past few years. Not many universities are doing the entire process starting from cultivation all the way to fuel testing,” said Nirmal Khandan, a civil engineering professor at NMSU.

Few universities producing algae for research

Khandan said only a handful of universities across the country are producing their own algae for research. Once at full capacity, his group will produce 4 kilograms, nearly 9 pounds, of dry algae a month to hand over to other NMSU researchers for their algae work.

“For a university, on a research scale, producing four kilograms of dry algae a month is on the high end,” Khandan said. “Considering we started four years ago from scratch, this is impressive. More importantly, we’re also able to train master’s and Ph.D. students in this emerging field and compete with major universities for funding in this area.”

NMSU is currently cultivating the algae in two 1,000-liter raceway ponds at the Fabian Garcia Science Center. Raceway ponds allow algae to grow and multiply while flowing in a circular pattern around the pond. Construction on another two 1,000-liter raceway ponds, as well as a 4,000-liter photobioreacter, which controls the conditions for algae growth, will be completed by April 2011.

Khandan’s students extract algae each day from the ponds while working to find the right mixture of light and nutrients for maximum yield. His student team was also one of 40 teams selected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to receive a $10,000 grant to modify and improve the efficiency of the algae extraction process. In May 2011, his team will present its design at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to compete for another $75,000 in grant money.

The green crude they extract supports research for NMSU’s two major algae-based fuel projects, a $44 million collaborative study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to commercialize algae-based fuel and a $2.3 million project with the University of Central Florida to study algae-based jet fuel for the U.S. Air Force.

NMSU has a separate partnership with the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management, a private company, which leases space at NMSU’s Agricultural Science Center at Artesia to grow and test algae.