The objectives of this CAREER project are (i) achieving energetically and environmentally sustainable production of algal biofuels through high cell density cultivation of algae as biofilms and (ii) integrating this interdisciplinary research effort to educate and inspire students, in particular of underrepresented groups, to pursue careers in science and engineering.
Intellectual Merit: Cultivation of algae has been considered as a promising method for producing carbon neutral hydrocarbon feedstock for biofuel production. However, conventional technologies, such as open ponds and closed photo-bioreactors, prove to be energetically, economically and environmentally unfeasible owing to cultivation of dilute concentration of biomass. This necessitates the use of (i) large volumes of water during cultivation, (ii) high energy for pumping the dilute algae suspension, and (iii) high energy for dewatering and concentrating algae. A promising method to cultivate algae is in the form of a biofilm for which the net energy return on investment could be as high as 6 fold. Development of novel algae cultivation methods based on high cell density systems can transform the algae based biofuel production technologies. This project will (a) characterize and minimize photo-inhibition, mass transport limitation, and thermal management issues of algal biofilm cultivation through system design, (b) evaluate the feasibility of algae biofilm cultivation with wastewater resources to supply and recycle nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and (c) conduct a life cycle analysis on the proposed process to assess its energetic, economic, and environmental sustainability.
Broader Impacts: The proposed activity will advance the understanding and technological applications of sustainable algae cultivation for biofuel and bioproduct generation while providing interdisciplinary education and research opportunities for students. The research results will be useful for design and use of manufacturing machines and equipment related to algae biofuel and wastewater resource coupled high rate high cell density algae cultivation.
The educational and outreach components of this CAREER project will expand the participation of females and minorities in engineering and will focus on renewable energy technologies and biofuels. These activities will include (i) My Introduction to Engineering (MITE) summer camp reaching over 100 minority high school seniors per year, (ii) Girls Exploring Science summer camp reaching 70 girls per year between the ages of 7 and 10, (iii) the Crockett High School Science Research Program providing research opportunities for 5 minority high schools seniors encouraging their enrollment in college, and (iv) Texas Research Experience (TREX) program recruiting 5 minority undergraduate researchers for encouraging their retention, enrolment in graduate school and ultimately for seeking Ph.D. degrees in engineering.