January 22, 2008
Xcel Energy has given a $150,000 gift to the University of Minnesota that builds on their commitment to renewable energy in Minnesota. Of particular interest is a groundbreaking algae-to-biofuels project led by the University of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Council.
“This gift will not simply fill a gap, but will give us an opportunity to expand our research and development capacity and help to launch larger efforts in this area,” said Robert Elde, Dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences and a leader in this project.
Researchers at the Metropolitan Council and the University of Minnesota’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE) have teamed up to investigate the potential for algae-to-fuel technology. Since 2006, the Council and IREE have provided funding to research and implement this emerging technology.
The $150,000 gift, issued from the Xcel Energy Chairman’s Fund, comes on the heels of a recent announcement that five University of Minnesota research projects have been selected to receive more than $4.5 million from the Xcel Energy Renewable Development Fund.
“Environmental stewardship is a top priority for us,” said Dick Kelly, Xcel Energy chairman, president & CEO. “The innovative and new renewable technologies under development by researchers at the University will help us use the earth’s resources wisely, reduce our impact on the environment and deploy cleaner energy technologies for tomorrow.”
The algae-to-biofuels research team is studying specific types of algae consisting of up to 40 percent oil. The oils extracted from the algae can be used to produce biodiesel, while the remaining wet biomass can be processed to produce bio-oils and other bio-based products.
The researchers are exploring an integrated approach for the efficient treatment and utilization of wastewater-stream based biomass, which would replace the current energy-intensive, drying-and-combustion treatment. Each day, the Metropolitan Council turns more than 250 million gallons of wastewater into clean water that is discharged into area rivers. The project team sees potential for cultivating vast amounts of energy-producing algae via the wastewater.
The Xcel funding will support a pilot system to produce algae for the development and improvement of harvest, extraction and conversion processes, as well as the collection of data necessary for further research and development.
“The traditional process of growing algae using large, open ponds works in warmer climates, but isn’t well-suited to colder locations like Minnesota,” explained IREE Director Dick Hemmingsen. “A closed-loop system utilizing wastewater and the heat produced by treatment plants to grow algae for fuels production is of particular interest for northern regions of the country.”
Another potential benefit of the algae research is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At present, the wastewater solids incinerators at two of the Council’s treatment plants release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Along with nitrogen and phosphorous, the carbon dioxide could be captured and used to supplement the growth of algae at both facilities.
“In both our transit and wastewater treatment systems, the Met Council is strongly committed to protecting the environment and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels,” said Peter Bell, Council chair. “Through our partnership with the University, we hope to develop new, homegrown sources of clean, renewable energy.”
The Xcel funding will also help the team leverage further investment in the commercialization of algae energy crop technologies. The partnership is seeking additional funding for a bench-scale study and a subsequent pilot-scale process demonstration over the next two years. During the study, Metropolitan Council Environmental Services plans to grow and harvest algae in a wastewater effluent flow of one-half liter per minute (about 180 gallons per day).
“The success of this technology is extremely significant since algae could completely replace our petroleum fuel use and improve our environment simultaneously,” said Roger Ruan, a University of Minnesota professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and a lead project investigator.
Building on a growing expertise in the field, the researchers will determine what kind of algae grows best in the effluent, measure its oil content and assess the potential for producing algae-based biofuels.