Unleaded Algae

Freshman honors students in Scientific Reasoning and Discovery, taught by J. Houston Miller, professor of chemistry.
May 02, 2011

Freshman honors students study algae’s potential as fuel.

By Menachem Wecker

Just hours after Kate Middleton and Prince William rode off in an Aston Martin DB6 MkII powered by bioethanol fuel made from wine, about a dozen freshman honors students ran an “algae open house.”

The students, who are taking the course Scientific Reasoning and Discovery taught by J. Houston Miller, professor of chemistry, discussed their efforts to turn a type of algae called botryococcus braunii into fuel.

The students – all of whom are part of the University Honors Program, which aims to provide students with “a distinctive, rigorous and challenging education” – were split into groups, which studied scaling up algae production, extracting and refining.

One group studied the financial implications of creating a startup that would harvest algae, while another tested conditions for growing the algae. Another team removed hydrocarbons and lipids, or fats, from the algae, while a fourth “cracked” the structure and size of the chemicals to optimize them for use as fuel.

“It’s funny. There aren’t a lot of pre-med, science type people in the class. It attracted a very wide variety of people,” said Preston Bell, a native of Lexington, Ky., who is considering a history major.

“The first day, we had an inkling of what this course was going to be about, but Professor Miller sat down with us and said, ‘Okay, where do we start?’” he said. “We all just got our laptops and started researching. It started really cold.”

His partner, Joseph Setaro, an international affairs major from Queens, N.Y., said he knew equally little about algae coming into the course.

“I had come across it a couple of times in high school,” he said. “People said we can make biodiesel out of it, and I was like, great. That doesn’t mean anything to me.”

“It’s interesting how we took a bunch of random people with random interests, put them together, and created a monster,” Mr. Bell said.

And that monster actually works, Mr. Setaro added.

“This is the kind of thing that ExxonMobil and big oil companies do with their crude oil, but obviously on a much larger scale,” he said. “It’s cool. We’ve basically built a mini oil refinery.”

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