Brad Cardinale

Game Changer Brad Cardinale

From Ponds to Power

The goal: create biofuels made from algae that work with existing diesel engines—and reduce gas emissions by 60 percent.

U-M SEAS professor and director of U-M’s Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), Brad Cardinale, is one of the top researchers on a project designed to achieve that goal.

“This is one of the first teams in the world to go all the way from designing sustainable biofuel feedstocks in outdoor ponds, to refining fuel so that it runs a diesel engine in a cleaner, more environmentally friendly way,” said Cardinale.

For years, U-M has been a leader in studying the materials and processes that can lead to efficient biofuels. Combining efforts across disciplines, researchers have found that cultivating microalgae in an aquatic environment provides advantages over growth in a terrestrial setting.

One of the biggest problems we have with energy production is that it often comes at the expense of the environment.

"We're not trying to fight against nature by designing one genetically superior strain of algae that can optimize all desired properties,” Cardinale said. “We’re using the principles of ecological engineering to design a more comprehensive set of multi-species algal feedstocks that optimize several desired properties of algal biofuels at once."

The Department of Energy—which recently backed the research project with $2 million in funding—has said that algae holds the potential to produce billions of gallons per year of renewable diesel, gasoline and jet fuels. And that contribution could prove crucial to meeting Renewable Fuel Standards. By 2022, 36 billion gallons of transportation fuels sold in the U.S. must come from blended sources. Only 15 million of those can come from corn-based ethanol, leaving a sizeable gap.

Throughout the three-year project, the research team will perform an end-to-end evaluation of how best to grow algae, transform it into a diesel fuel and maximize its performance during the combustion process. Cardinale will be working with U-M colleagues André Boehman, professor of mechanical engineering and director of U-M’s W.E. Lay Automotive Laboratory, Levi Thompson, a former U-M professor of chemical engineering who is now dean of engineering at the University of Delaware, along with colleagues at Penn State.

Excerpted from From ponds to power: $2M to perfect algae as diesel fuel by Nicole Casal Moore for Planet Blue 10/02/18