USU team grows and races on liquid sunlight

Published: Monday, Aug. 26 2013 4:18 p.m. MDT

The Aggie A-Salt Streamliner, a Utah State University-built dragster powered with USU-developed algae biodiesel is checked before the start of the race last week at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The car set a land-speed record by reaching 73 mph.

Terry D. Call, Courtesy of Utah State University

SALT LAKE CITY — A team of Utah State University students and researchers has spent the last eight years trying to go 73 mph — an accomplishment they hope will one day cut down on the air pollution people breathe.

Their answer is what they call "liquid sunlight" or a biodiesel fuel that begins as algae grown in a lab and transforms into fuel that powers an engine.

In this case, on the white expanse of Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats, the biodiesel powered the Aggie A-Salt Streamliner to 73 mph to qualify for a speed record at the Southern California Timing Association's 65th Annual Speed Week held Aug. 10-16.

"Everybody pays attention because it does say USU. Anybody who has ever been associated with USU is excited about the project and wants to come talk to us," said Michael Morgan, an undergraduate student in biochemistry and the driver of the race car.

"That is why we started the project, to show off what our fuels can do."

At Utah State University, it was plant students who grew the algae in the lab, biochemists who refined the fuel and mechanical engineers who built the car.

The Aggie-A Salt Streamliner qualified for the speed record just a week before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized its latest rule dealing with biofuel quotas. The federal agency relaxed the standard somewhat, but in 2014 will require that 16.55 billion gallons of renewable fuels be blended with the U.S. fuel supply.

The controversial standard has been blamed for the rising cost of corn, which has nearly tripled in price per bushel over the last decade. It is estimated that 40 percent of the corn grown in the United States ends up in a fuel tank, and that could increase in the future.

Most of the biodiesel in the United States is produced from soybeans, which are a source of protein for people and livestock. Because soybeans have use beyond biofuel, that helps to reduce production costs — the next goal in the process.

"This is still very much a frontier area," said Lance Seefeldt, a professor in USU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. "And as in any frontier area, there are costs that could be lower."

Last year, the same race car earned another speed record, but this time on yeast biofuel generated from the industrial waste of cheese production.

The race was considered a trial, laying the foundation to upgrade to the biofuel made from algae. The team also wanted to use a fuel that is completely renewable and did not depend at all on another petroleum-fueled industry, such as dairy production.

When the fuel is used in a 20-to-80 ratio as a blend in those traditional products, the result is a 20 percent reduction of those nitrous oxide emissions, or NOX, said Morgan.

The team noticed that in the chase vehicle during the race, the race car's exhaust looked different while being powered on the biofuel — compared to all diesel.

"It went from very black to gray," Morgan said. "For us that is exciting."

Alex McCurdy, a doctoral candidate in biochemistry, said it took about 6 pounds of algae and a couple of months to produce about 1.3 liters of the fluid.

McCurdy said the beauty of the algae is that there is not the same type of demand — and thus competition — for it as there exists for corn and soybeans.

"If you are using waste, a microorganism that no one considers for food, you don't have that kind of competition."

While the team believes the algae-generated biodiesel will eventually perform just as well as petroleum-based fuels, the trick is bringing down the production costs so it can make it to the pipeline.

"I am really excited about the project and the work that is being done on the production of biodiesel," said Rheesa Ledbetter, a graduate student who works in the lab. "The next step is to take our biodiesel production to the next level, to find ways to large scale production at low costs. I think that is where we are headed in the future."

The Aggie A-Salt Streamliner will race again Sept. 7-10 during the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association's 2013 World of Speed event.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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