Karl Kuschner of the College of William & Mary, who leads the school's algal fuel research project,
explains how the program got its start and the focus of its research.
Blackrock Energy, a local firm in the Williamsburg, Va., area, wanted to start an algae research program, so it started a consortium of companies that were interested, and also secured funding from the Norwegian energy company Statoil. They teamed with several other universities that are interested in the same research, and also with the Smithsonian Institution.
Kuschner says as a neighbor of the Chesapeake Bay, William & Mary is interested in the research because it is environmentally friendly and because algae have a carbon-neutral fuel cycle. That helps the bay, because the algae can use nutrients that are considered pollution in the bay's ecosystem. Statoil funded the project for its first year and then renewed for another years starting in May of 2010.
Although there are some 100 universities conducting algal research, Kuschner does not feel there is so much competition that the schools won't share information. He says his program's advantage is that it works with wild algae, not a certain species in a bioreactor. He says the process he's using does not use any energy, aside from the energy required to harvest the algae.
Kuschner believes the technology is scalable, but in order to go to a commercial scale, it would probably have to use algae grown in the ocean, which can be a harsh, unpredictable environment. That's an engineering problem that other researchers are trying to solve. His team is solving the scientific problems of scaling, such as what types of nutrients, or how much water or carbon-dioxide is needed as the scale gets larger.