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Tina Casey headshot

Algae Biofuel Thrives in the Heart of Oil Country

As the U.S. transitions out of a petroleum economy, oil-rich Texas is emerging as something of a surprise leader in biofuel research. If the country's quintessential oil state sees promise in biofuels, that stands as a powerful indicator that the national market is ready, too, even in the case of algae biofuel, which has been greeted with derision in some circles.

One main driver of Texas's vanguard position in the biofuel field has been Texas A&M University, the premier public education and research institution. The school's AgriLife department has firmly established itself in the forefront of algae biofuel development despite the nay saying of at least one of the state's own representatives in Congress, who took jabs at the Navy’s algae biofuel program at a hearing in Congress just last month.

Algae biofuel research at A&M

If you look at AgriLife's enthusiastic embrace of algae, you can catch a hint of the excitement that oil pioneers had over their new fuel at the turn of the last century, when many horse-owners were still casting a suspicious eye at new automotive technologies: According to one AgriLife fact sheet:

With its high oil content algae is ideal for producing biodiesel and jet fuel, and it can be cultivated in brackish water on land unsuitable for growing food…Commercial microalgae farms in west Texas would generate jobs and enhance economic growth.  Coproducts from algae biofuels production show potential as a protein supplement in cattle feed or as a source of nitrogen fertilizer.  This makes algae for fuel more economically sustainable.
Federal funding for A&M algae research

Texas A&M’s ongoing algae program  totaled about $7 million by 2010. It has received funding from the Department of Defense, through the U.S. Air Force. Other partners have included the Texas Emerging Technology Fund and the California based company General Atomics, which is better known for its longtime work in nuclear energy.

The crown jewel of A&M's program is a “world class” algae biofuel test center in Pecos, Texas. The center was established with the goal of developing commercially viable algae biofuel production processes that could be conducted on a large scale throughout the arid Southwestern U.S.

That’s a bit of a challenge, since conventional algae farming relies on copious amounts of water. However, a relatively modest investment in R&D to develop more efficient processes would be well worth the price for the state’s economy. The oil extraction industry is beginning to run short on places to drill competitively in Texas and other parts of the Southwest, and the refinery sector is on the lookout for alternative feedstocks.

More federal funding for A&M algae biofuel

Since 2010, the AgriLife program has also been working on its share of a $44 million, multistate biofuel research project funded by the Department of Energy. Its cut was between $5 million and $6 million, part of which specifically involves expanding the algae program.

An article last week in A&M’s publication The Battalion (via uwire) enthusiastically noted that “within the next decade… the energy in algae may be a viable source for fuel, thanks to researchers at Texas A&M U.”

Part of the current program involves developing a new high-efficiency, low cost harvesting process by growing algae in pellets. Other avenues of research include genetic engineering and a retooling of algae’s metabolic pathways. Artificial photosynthesis is also a future goal.

Texas rep jabs at algae, zings his home state

As for the aforementioned Texas Congressman, that would be Representative Mike Conaway of the 11th District, who is himself an A&M graduate. While later serving in the Army he was stationed at Fort Hood, which has become a top  showcase for alternative energy as part of the Army’s “Net Zero” initiative to wean its bases off petroleum products and grid-supplied power. The Net Zero program is designed to serve the military's interest in energy security while also serving as a showcase for working technologies that the civilian sector could adopt.

In that light, Conaway's antagonism toward new biofuel technology is somewhat surprising, though a phrase near the end of his official biography hints that some ties are closer than school ties or even military ties: after leaving the service, “Mike developed a lasting friendship with President Bush as together they learned what it takes to run a business.” Conway eventually became Chief Financial Officer for Bush Exploration.

Image: Some rights reserved by Boston Public Library, Reto Fetz.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.


Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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