Fueling up your car with ethanol produced from blue-green algae may sound far-fetched. But Bill Gibbons, a professor and researcher in SDSU’s Department of Biology and Microbiology, says it is close to reality – with commercial availability of this new generation of ethanol just four or five years away.

Gibbons and his colleagues at SDSU are among the nation’s leaders in this innovative algae-to-biofuel concept, which aims to expand the ethanol resource in the U.S. and lessen reliance on foreign petroleum.

"Right now we are using 140 billion gallons of gasoline annually in the United States and spending $1 billion day to buy oil," Gibbons points out. "Think of the multiplier effect on our country if we could keep that money here," he adds.

Gibbons believes domestically produced biofuels are a key component for that turnaround, but he also knows that it can’t all come from corn and soybeans. Presently the U.S. has the capability to produce over 13 billion gallons of "traditional" ethanol – which accounts for 10 percent of fuel used by American consumers. Revolutionary new research at SDSU focusing on cellulosic biomass and cyanobacteria – also known as blue-green algae – is providing alternatives to broaden the scope of ethanol production and use even further, Gibbons explains.

Cellulose & Cyanobacteria

SDSU researchers are accustomed to leading the charge on ethanol’s development. It all began in the late 1970’s when the first farm scale, fuel-ethanol production still in the nation was developed at SDSU.

Gibbons explains that the first generation of biofuels focused on using corn for ethanol and soybeans for biodiesel. "That was the traditional approach," he says.

The second generation of biofuels converts biomass or cellulosic material from grass, corn cobs and stover, trees or waste into ethanol. Researchers at SDSU have had a switchgrass breeding program for this type of bioenergy since the 1980s. A current five-year project at the North Central Sun Grant Center at SDSU has researchers working to optimize another native grass, prairie cordgrass, for ethanol production. This project is also developing biomass fractionation pretreatments, techniques to reuse enzymes, thermotolerant yeast, and a new generation of high solids bioreactors. Additionally, a Department of Defense project at SDSU is working to produce jet fuels from biomass such as prairie cordgrass.

Gibbons anticipates that biomass ethanol will be on the market by 2012. Sioux Falls-based POET, a leading producer of ethanol, has been producing cellulosic ethanol at a pilot plant near Scotland, S.D. since 2008 and is constructing its first commercial scale cellulosic ethanol plant at Emmetsburg, Iowa, which is scheduled to begin operating in 2012.

While ethanol produced from corn and cellulosic feedstocks offers a viable renewable energy alternative, it also comes with some limitations – primarily the fact that the majority of America’s transportation fuel infrastructure (pipelines and distribution networks, storage facilities, and engines) have been designed for petroleum products, not ethanol.