SIPI students win award for algae biofuel project

By Erin Voegele | July 19, 2011

A team of students at New Mexico-based Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute has been awarded first place in the 2011 Renewable Energy Challenge Competition with its algae biofuel project. The competition is sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Argonne National Laboratory. The winning team was honored at an Argonne ceremony in mid-July.

According to information released by SIPI, this is the second consecutive year that its students have won the national competition. This year’s team was awarded for its process design to convert algae biomass into biodiesel. The competition featured two phases. During the first phase, each team submitted process designs for biomass to biodiesel conversion. Under the rules of the competition, the teams were allowed to select any biomass feedstock for conversion. The competition guidelines also required each team to indicate how safety measures would be achieved. Teams accepted into the second phase of the competition were provided with $3,500 to implement their process design and a small diesel-powered generator. Final competition submissions required of each team included narrated videos showing how the biodiesel was produced, as well as video of the supplied generator being fueled with a blend of the biodiesel. In addition, a 100-milliliter sample of biodiesel was shipped to Argonne.

According to videos produced as part of the final submission for the contest, the SIPI team investigated the use of two different strains of algae for biomass production, with the most productive strain ultimately being employed in the project. The video shows algae being grown in open ponds located within a greenhouse. Students appearing in the video said that both wastewater and well water were used to cultivate algae for the competition. Water quality analysis activities for the project were completed by laboratories at the University of New Mexico. The video notes that New Mexico State University also supported the project by assisting with the conversion of dried algae biomass into biodiesel.

The video demonstrates several methods the team devised to dewater algae. Information contained within the video shows that the students first tried filtering the algae using a 500-thread-count sheet. However, that method was not found to be effective. Methods involving the use of a vacuum, fish net, metal strainer and silk screen were also tested. According to the video, the most effective method devised by the team was a filter constructed out of organza. Algae separated from the water using the organza filter was then sundried and crushed into a powder. The video demonstrates a process using hexane was used to extract the lipids from the biomass, which was then separated using a simple centrifuge process.

Information released by SIPI notes that the team also worked with canola oil, which was used to test the process to produce biodiesel. This was done to ensure the team could properly proceed through the formulas to produce the biobased fuel.

According to Nader Vadiee, SIPI faculty member and program coordinator, the SIPI biofuel team did a great job meeting the challenges of the competition. “We had an excellent team of excellent hard working students, with a lot of support from their mentors and instructors,” he said.

Links to videos produced by the SIPI team can be accessed on the institute’s website.