Scientists in Chile Turn Microalgae Into Fuel

July 1, 2017 10:40 am Last Updated: July 1, 2017 10:40 am

Chilean scientists have produced biodiesel from microalgae in a process they hope can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80 percent and cut pollution in cities like Santiago.

Researchers at the department of Chemical Engineering and Bioprocesses at Chile’s Pontifical Catholic University grew enough algae to process into biodiesel.

That process requires the algae to be broken down and its oil extracted. Then the moisture and debris is removed so it can be converted into biofuel.

Currently, most of the world’s biodiesel comes from soybean oil.

Corn, canola, and palm oil are also used to produce biofuels, which can replace petroleum-based gasoline and diesel. Biofuels are already mixed into these fuels in the United States by federal mandate.

The new process holds promise but significant challenges remain, said professor César Sáez.

“To produce a sufficient amount to use them in fuel requires a large amount of biomass and that is actually one of our challenges as engineers,” he said.

It needs to be cost effective to grow and process the microalgae if it is to be competitive with conventional fuels. Scientists are experimenting with different light wavelengths and other aspects to improve the process.

The scientists hope to improve the technology and ramp up production using little energy, Sáez said.

“We want to focus on processes that are very efficient in the use of energy,” he said.

Ricardo Garcia, a professor of automobile mechanics at the university, said cleaning up the air was a key goal.

“The biofuel product from the algae grown in the laboratory, would be an effective method to reduce the particulate material that our city experiences during the autumn and winter seasons.”