Undergraduate Student and Professor Develop Process to Convert Algae into Biofuel

MacKenzie works on different pretreatment methods to better convert algae into biogas.

MacKenzie works on different pretreatment methods to better convert algae into biogas.

Ever wonder what the true purpose of pond scum is?

Undergraduate student MacKenzie Mayo might have discovered the answer as a result of anaerobic digestion research that she conducted with her advisor, Dr. Jaron Hansen, of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Anaerobic digestion involves using a consortium of bacteria to convert organic waste into one or a combination of three gas streams: hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide.

Hansen and Mayo have focused their research on developing methods to further improve the anaerobic digestion of waste. Mayo concentrated her efforts specifically on testing algae and different pretreatment methods to better convert algae into biogas.

“The big picture of the project is we’re trying to use bacteria to turn organic material into biofuel,” Mayo said. “My part of the project was working with pretreating the material that we’re feeding the bacteria. We have a pretreatment method that we’re working on to make it easier for bacteria to digest [grass, sawdust and algae].”

Mayo discovered that by pretreating algae with both hydrogen peroxide and UV light, bacteria can more effectively breakdown plant matter, such as cellulose and lignin in algae, into biogas. The conversion process of algae into natural gas speeds up and is more efficient with Mayo’s pretreatment of hydrogen peroxide and UV light.

“The advantage of having a pretreatment method, then, is you increase the efficiency of conversion of plant matter cellulose- and lignin-containing compounds into biogas,” Hansen said.

Renewable energy sources will be more readily available as these pretreatment processes are utilized during the anaerobic digestion process. Biogases created from this process can eventually be converted into methane, biodiesel and electricity.

Mayo enjoyed working closely with Dr. Hansen in her undergraduate research and hopes to continue to be involved in environmental conservational research in the future.

“It’s been really a good experience to work in this lab,” Mayo said. “Taking what you, as a chemistry major, learn in the classroom . . . learning those techniques and then actually seeing how that works in more of an applied setting — that’s been really interesting.”

By Chris Scheitinger Posted on