Bioalcohols are gasoline substitutes distilled from carbohydrates which are extracted from plant matter. The most common bioalcohol in North America is ethanol, made from corn kernels. Ethanol presents some distinct advantages over petroleum gasoline for internal combustion engines — primarily in that tailpipe emissions are “cleaner.” However, the vast bulk of ethanol currently produced in the United States comes from a food crop — corn. At least some of the on-going inflation in worldwide food prices can be attributed to the growing portion of the global corn crop that is diverted from the human food chain to fuel production. In keeping with our mission to generate alternative biomass energy from waste streams, Bronco Biodiesel is pioneering research on biofuel production derived from algae in wastewater treatment systems.

In addition to ethanol, we are engaged in research to produce biobutanol from wastewater algae. Biobutanol, in contrast to ethanol, can be used in our country’s existing fuel transportation infrastructure (primarily the pipeline system). In addition, biobutanol packs almost 30% more BTUs per gallon than ethanol. It could therefore prove critical to consumers' needs for fuel efficiency in an era of escalating petroleum prices.

Bronco Biodiesel is currently:

  • partnering with Muskegon County to harvest algae from wastewater treatment lagoons and extract recoverable energy.
  • partnering with the National Museum of Natural History and HydroMentia to incorporate energy recovery from algal biomass in nutrient remediation using Algal Turf Scrubbers.™ (funded by Smithsonian Institution)
  • developing processes for converting algal biomass into liquid transportation biofuels. (Federally funded through P.L. 110-161)

Wastewater Algae

Wastewater algae grows from excess nutrient-loading in surface waters of the United States. It is a significant water quality problem across the country and contributes to dead zones of the Great Lakes and oceanic coastal areas.

But, it's also a resource for sustainable, renewable biofuel. Wastewater algae is rich in carbohydrates, but lacks the rigid cellular structure that makes terrestrial crops challenging for ethanol fermentation. Algae grows naturally on the order of millions of pounds per person per year in the U.S., or hundreds of millions of gallons of potential biofuel.

Our Research

Much of the current interest in algal biomass for fuel feedstocks has followed from the now two-decade old Department of Energy Aquatic Species Program research that showed the impressive promise for cultivating high-triglceride content algal species. While these species represent a significant improvement over land-based crops for biodiesel feedstock, they have proven problematic to cultivate. Thus, more recent efforts have targeted molecular biological attempts to create new organisms that lend themselves better to oil production and cultivation.

By contrast, in keeping with our mission, we focus on algal biomass generated by municipal and commercial wastewater cleanup processes. We have partnered with colleagues who exploit native algae growth as a way of removing nutrients from water supplies. The algal biomass from these sources comprises complex communities of organisms that grow naturally together in a particular climate/season and location. The resulting biomass is rich in both carbohydrates as well as triglycerides, both of which can be converted into liquid fuels. Our research addresses the issue of biomass disposal for water treatment operations and can potentially subsidize water treatment, leading to greater sustainability. There are a variety of areas where innovations and optimizations will be especially important and where we will direct our efforts.

Bronco Biodiesel's research objectives include:

  • Exploring harvesting and preprocessing of algal biomass generated by existing municipal and commercial wastewater remediation installations for conversion to biofuels.
  • Developing capturing processes by harnessing both photosynthetic and non-photosynthetic organisms.
  • Developing processes for oil extraction from algal biomass and subsequent conversion of the oil to biodiesel, optimizing for yield, efficiency, and waste reduction.
  • Developing lifecycle analysis for long term cost recovery and energy balance evaluations.

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