Polymer applications for improved biofuel production from algae
Biofuel is a renewable and sustainable energy source with near-neutral carbon footprint. Algae are an ideal feedstock for biofuel production because they reproduce quickly and have high oil. Algae can be cultivated in non-arable land, and would not impact the food supply. Unfortunately, processing algae into biofuel is more expensive than land crops due to the large volumes of dilute algal suspension that must be harvested and concentrated. In order to improve algae-based biofuel economics, resins were developed that reduce costs associated with water pumping and transport. Hydrophobic resins were developed for binding oil out of an algal suspension so that the residual biomass could be recovered without solvent contamination. Binding behavior displayed lipid species specificity, and binding capacity was improved by ethanol treatment of the biomass. Algae was harvested by binding to anion exchange resin and directly converted into biodiesel. One-step, room temperature in situ transesterification of algae yielded nearly as much biodiesel as two-step, heated transesterification of dried biomass. Elution with transesterification reagent also regenerated the resin for subsequent algal binding. Functionalized resins were developed with high algal binding capacity at neutral pH. Binding was easily reversed, as treatment with buffer with pH higher than pKa of the resin functional group removed the algae and regenerated the resin for subsequent use. The resin bound 10% of its weight in algae and released it as a 100-fold concentrated suspension. The polymers developed can be scaled up for commercial processes and reduce algal harvesting and concentration costs.