Award-winning algae team set to be filmed for TV

By Luke Geiver | May 18, 2011

The film crew following the team of students and professors around the labs at the University of Arkansas may not be with some MTV reality show, but if you’ve ever wanted a behind-the-scenes glimpse into an algae-to-butanol project, here is your chance. Led by Jamie Hestekin, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University or Arkansas College of Engineering, the team recently won the Innovator of the Year award from PBS-based Planet Forward. As part of their award, the team will be filmed over the course of a year at their on-campus labs, the Planet Forward studios and other locations as they attempt to turn their prototype farm-based algae-to-butanol production unit from a very small (and proven) unit, into a functional push-button machine.

The idea started more than three years ago when Hestekin and his colleagues decided to look into the promise of algae, but their approach, according to Hestekin, was a bit different. Their approach was to focus on carbohydrates. “Our initial approach was to use wild algae for clean up and making fuel,” he told Biodiesel Magazine. “We said, let’s not try and work with GMO strains and worry about keeping them from getting contaminated. Let’s work with actual natural strains that exist in an area and make with it what we can.”

Those algae strains, he found, had very low quantities of oil, 2 percent or less, but those same strains had roughly 40 percent or higher amounts of carbohydrates. By focusing on the carbohydrates and the easier to access starch, the team set out to develop an algae-to-butanol process that utilized dried algae-biomass. While developing that system, the team also began working with New York City to test the process in the hopes that it could one day clean mass algae from the city’s Jamaica Bay and produce butanol from it.

The farm-based unit approach seemed to match up well with this idea for butanol production, and the team of students and professors developed a system that takes in dry algae biomass, “hydrolyzes it to the conditions that we set, the temperature, acid conditions and then neutralizes it before sending it on to fermentation,” Hestekin explained, followed by a step that injects the organisms into the fermentation before going to a two-stage distillation process. The team has created a software program that allows the system to be fully automated and operative at the push of a button. The software can also be tweaked to allow for other feedstocks, he said. “Now we have what we think is the first of its kind unit like this in the world,” he said, adding that “the challenge is, can we build it so this can be mass produced at some point, something that we can ship to a farm so someone could get useable quantities of fuel to run some equipment.”

Algae from farm or cow ponds could be used and dried very close to the ponds before collection for use in the processor, he said. The team has already tested a small system and ran a remote-controlled gas-powered car using the butanol.

To win the award, the team had to put together a video about its project of making farm based units that could utilize algae to produce butanol, and present the video to a panel of experts that included DuPont’s chief innovation officer and the former Governor of Michigan. The panelists then commented on the fate of each project before a studio audience and television viewers. “They didn’t just always say ‘This is great,’” Hestekin said. “They would say, ‘Hey, I don’t think this is going to work.’” The live audience voted for a solar panel project and the other off-site voters ended up choosing the University of Arkansas’ project, a project that beat other algae projects including Sapphire Energy.

“The students are very excited,” he said. “I think that in science we need to do more to get the public aware of what we are doing.” For one year, that is exactly what Planet Forward will be doing by profiling the team as it attempts to get its prototype more established.

To view footage of the University of Arkansas team, visit

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