LITTLE green Machines ALGAE RESEARCH EXPLORES A BROAD SPECTRUM OF USES
BY KIMBeL WeSTerSOn
f you’re thinking of algae, you’re most likely thinking it’s time to clean the pool. But there is a place in Mesa that concentrates on growing algae on purpose. The Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI), a part of the College of Technology and Innovation and housed on the Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus, is dedicated to researching the uses for those little green organisms. When I asked Dr. Milton Sommerfeld, professor and codirector of AzCATI, about the difference between what clouds up the swimming pool and what the lab grows in giant test tubes, he says, “It’s essentially the same thing. One of the best strains in terms of petroleum was isolated from a small pond in Phoenix.”
vegetable oil in the pantry. (It even smells like vegetable oil.) Unfortunately, while research findings continue to look positive, Sommerfeld says developing a fuel product to compete in a commodity market is challenging. Even though we’ve been extracting oil from the ground for more than 100 years, research on biofuels is relatively new. YOU’re ALreADY eATInG IT To illustrate the diverse range of products that contain algae, Sommerfeld has a line of containers on his desk. He holds up two jars – one with dark green powder, one with lighter green powder. Both are biomass, or what’s left of algae once either water or oil has been extracted. This is the stuff that is rich with protein and carbohydrates and is put in health supplements, or used by his wife for algae cookies.
STrIKInG OIL For years, the big story about algae has been about turning it into biofuel. According to Sommerfeld, about 50 percent of some algae strains are oil. In the late 1970s, the government realized that the country had become too dependent on foreign oil and initiated the Aquatic Species Program, an effort to research algae as a potential oil source. Sommerfeld and others went out bio-prospecting throughout the Southwest because it had been identified as desirable due to its sunny climate. Oil extracted from algae looks like dark crude oil. When processed into biodiesel, it’s as clear and gold as the
224 greenliving greenliving| |October2013 October2013
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