Microalgal Biodiesel Production through a Novel Attached Culture System and Conversion Parameters


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Virginia Tech


Due to a number of factors, the biodiesel industry in the United States is surging in growth. Traditionally, oil seed crops such as soybean are used as the feedstock to create biodiesel. However, the crop production can no longer safely keep up with the demand for the growing biodiesel industry.

Using algae as a feedstock has been considered for a number of years, but it has always had limitations. These limitations were mainly due to the production methods used to grow and harvest the algae, rather than the reaction methods of creating the biodiesel, which are the same as when using traditional crops. Algae is a promising alternative to other crops for a number of reasons: it can be grown on non arable land, is not a food crop, and produces much more oil than other crops. In this project, we propose a novel attached growth method to produce the algae while recycling dairy farm wastewater using the microalga Chlorella sp.

The first part of the study provided a feasibility study as the attachment of the alga onto the supporting substrate as well as determining the pretreatment options necessary for the alga to grow on wastewater. The results showed that wastewater filtered through cheesecloth to remove large particles was feasible for production of Chlorella sp, with pure wastewater producing the highest biomass yield. Most importantly, the attached culture system largely exceeded suspended culture systems as a potentially feasible and practical method to produce microalgae. The algae grew quickly and were able to produce more than 3.2 g/m2-day with lipid contents of about 9% dry weight, while treating dairy farm wastewater and removing upwards of 90% of the total phosphorus and 79% of the nitrogen contained within the wastewater.

Once the "proof-of-concept" work was completed, we investigated the effects of repeat harvests and intervals on the biomass and lipid production of the microalgae. The alga, once established, was harvested every 6, 10, or 15 days, with the remaining algae on the substrate material functioning as inoculums for repeated growth. Using this method, a single alga colony produced biomass and lipids for well over six months time in a laboratory setting.

The second part of this study investigated another aspect of biodiesel production from algae. Rather than focus solely on biomass production, we looked into biodiesel creation methods as well. Biodiesel is created through a chemical reaction known as transesterification, alcoholysis, or commonly, methylation, when methanol is the alcohol used. There are several different transesterification methods. By simplifying the reaction conditions and examining the effects in terms of maximum fatty acid methyl esters (FAME) produced, we were able to determine that a direct transesterification with chloroform solvent was more effective than the traditional extraction-transesterification method first popularized by Bligh & Dyer in 1959 and widely used. This synergistic research helps to create a more complete picture of where algal biodiesel research and development is going in the future.



algal wastewater treatment, attached algal culture, biodiesel, algae, algal oil, lipids, transesterification, fatty acid methyl esters, direct methylation