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Algae as fuel, fertilizer and food — for animals AND us? ASU prof thinks so.
It's not easy being green — but algae could be a major player in sustainability.
May 11, 2016

Polytechnic prof Milton Sommerfeld exploring the possibilities of algae as super food, fuel, fertilizer and more

Milton Sommerfeld can see the future in puddles.

One of the nation’s top experts on algae, Sommerfeld has spent almost 50 years cracking dozens of uses for the plant. In Sommerfeld’s future, you will fill your tank with it; feed it to livestock; fertilize crops, lawns or flowers; clean up wastewater with it; and eat it.

One of the best strains he ever found was in a puddle after a storm in Phoenix.

“We picked it up and it started growing, and it produced over 50 percent of its weight as oil,” Sommerfeld said. “You never know where you’re going to find an algae strain that has value for a different type of product.”

There are about 75,000 different types of algae, ranging from microscopic specimens to kelp a hundred feet long and as big around as a baseball bat. It can look like lime Kool-Aid, black or brown crude oil, or hearty burgundy.

“It’s a very broad-spectrum use,” said Sommerfeld, professorSommerfeld is a professor in the Environmental and Resource Management Program in the Polytechnic School, which is part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Sommerfeld is also a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. in the Polytechnic School and co-director of the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation.

“The focus has been on biofuels,” he said. “It’s believed that the petroleum we take out of the ground had its origin in algae millions of years ago. If you look at the chemistry of algae oil, the lipids, it pretty much matches petroleum. Anything you can use petroleum for, you can pretty much use algae oil. That means not only fuel in terms of diesel, gasoline and jet fuel — you also have the specialty products that can be made, like plastics and so on.”

ASU algae expert Milton Sommerfeld
ASU professor Milton Sommerfeld is co-director of the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation. He has studied algae for 48 years and says there is much yet to be discovered. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

 

Algae has some surprises in its membranes, like Omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to help cardiovascular health, among other benefits. Omega-3 is usually referred to as a fish oil. It’s actually an algae oil. Algae oils will eventually replace Omega-3 supplements found in health-food stores.

“The fish have simply accumulated them by eating little animals that ate algae,” Sommerfeld said. “We always say, ‘Let’s cut out the middle fish and go right to the algae for those specialty products.’ ... We just haven’t used the algae to its fullest extent. More and more people are looking at the algae as the source for some of these specialty products that actually now comes from a plant source.”

Sommerfeld grew up on a farm in Texas. His father made him clean the algae out of the cattle trough. Every week, he cleaned it out. Every week, it came back.

“I kept wondering why it grew so fast,” he said. “That was how I first related to the algae.”

One of the major focus areas of Sommerfeld’s lab is how to relate algae to the water-energy-feed nexus. Algae can be grown in dairy wastewater or in sludge from water treatment plants, stuff that’s usually trucked to landfills. Grow algae in that, take out the oil, and you’re left with a nitrogen-rich biomass perfect for fertilizer.

“It’s high-protein,” Sommerfeld said. “Now you have a high-protein source for animal feed, or even potentially human food.”

 

The biggest immediate impact from algae will be bioremediation — cleaning up environmental threats — and producing specialty chemicals, according to Sommerfeld.  Why not fuel, if it’s so readily extracted? Sommerfeld has cooked up biodiesel in his lab from algae. Why hasn’t ExxonMobil built giant ponds?

The problem is taking algae farming to a large scale. Most work with algae has been at small scale, although some people have tried unsuccessfully. There are huge challenges in introducing a new crop to industrialized agriculture. 

“Just think about trying to introduce a new crop at large scale,” Sommerfeld said. “We don’t do that now.

“If you look at our crop plants, they started on small farms and got bigger and we learned how to do it and got bigger machinery and bigger this and bigger that, all kinds of improvements in seed because through a different process because there was a big market for food or whatever you get out of the grain.

“Now you’re trying to do this with a product that’s a commodity product: oil. It’s a commodity product. It’s cheap. Now you’re trying to compete with an industry that’s been here more than 100 years.”

On a four-acre site directly across the street from Sommerfeld’s lab on ASU’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa, he is working on bringing algae cultivation to a production scale. In the baking sun sit racks of panels with algae bubbling in them and long test beds lined with white plastic where mill paddles churn scarab-green and wine-dark water. Four years ago the U.S. Department of Energy invested $15 million to find out how to grow algae outdoors in a production setting.

There’s a lot more to it than simply transferring what you did inside in a test tube to a 300,000-liter test bed outside. Sometimes that works, Sommerfeld said. Sometimes it doesn’t.

“One of the things that happens we’re finding when we started to begin to scale up and do it outdoors, it’s that there are a lot of little animals that get in,” he said. “We have the same kinds of problems that farmers have with insects.

ASU algae expert Milton Sommerfeld and a colleague.

Dr. Emil Puruhito (left) and Dr. Milton
Sommerfeld stand by one of the algae
research ponds at the Arizona Center
for Algae Technology and Innovation
at the Polytechnic campus.

Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

“Now you have these creatures that blow in with the wind and the dust storms, and they love to eat the algae. They cause what we call algal crash. All of a sudden the cells begin to come together and turn brown and settle down. It’s sort of like they’re dead, and you have to almost restart the system, which is very expensive on a large scale. One of the things we’ve been doing recently is really trying to detect and identify those organisms and look at how do we control them like insects. We’re having a little success in doing that.”

Controlling crashes can be done physically or chemically. Sommerfeld’s lab works on both, but leans towards chemical solutions.

“The treatment for different organisms is different,” he said. “We’re trying to sort that out. ... It’s like anything else. If a farmer detects boll weevils, he sprays and then inspects again. ... You look for resistant species. Then you look at it, OK, this is one we really want to grow. Now how do we keep it in a viable way?”

Despite a lifelong fascination with the plant and 48 years studying every facet of it, much remains to be learned.

“One of the great things about science is every time you think you know something, you really do, but there’s another question out there that leads to something interesting,” Sommerfeld said. “You’re never at the end point.”

 

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

 
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ASU prof helped NASA plan Hubble observation resulting in latest Mars image.
ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration stands at pivotal point, prof says.
May 19, 2016

New image of Red Planet a high point in ASU professor's long involvement with global monitoring of our solar-system neighbor

Every two years Earth and Mars reach a point in their orbits where the distance between them is shortest. That's a time when telescopes big and small, both on the ground and in orbit, turn toward the Red Planet in hopes of learning more about this dynamic neighbor world.

For the Hubble Space Telescope, an image taken May 12 and released today shows Mars in a way unseen even by the spacecraft that are orbiting the planet. The image, taken at a distance of 50 million miles, continues a series, most recently as part of the Hubble Heritage observing program, that has run unbroken since 1993.

For ASU professor Jim Bell, who helped NASA plan the Hubble observation, Mars has been part of his professional life for longer than that.

"I started observing Mars back in 1986," he said. "It was for a summer student research project, and I was trying to understand the composition of rocks on the surface."

Bell is a professor in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration, where his research deals with solar system geology and geochemistry. He is heavily involved in three Mars surface instruments: the Panoramic Camera on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, the Mastcam on NASA's Curiosity rover, and the Mastcam-Z on NASA's forthcoming Mars 2020 rover. He serves as principal investigator for the latter.

"At the time I started as a graduate student, there were no spacecraft orbiting Mars," he said, "so I was using telescopes at several observatories on the ground, in particular on Mauna Kea in Hawaii." The main instrument used was a spectrometer, which precisely measures the light reflected from a planet across a great many colors to identify its minerals.

"There were other planetary scientists at telescopes taking regular images to monitor the atmosphere of Mars — its clouds and hazes and dust storms. I was mostly interested in the composition of the surface. Because I was observing a bright, relatively nearby astronomical body and didn't need super-dark, moonless nights, I had essentially unlimited time on smaller telescopes that were largely unused."

Planetary scientist Jim Bell of the School of Earth and Space Exploration finds that the Hubble Space Telescope gives views of Mars that no orbiter can provide. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

 

The spectrometer measured just one small spot on Mars, about the size of Arizona, Bell explains. "I could point the telescope to drive the instrument around Mars, getting spectra of various places — Syrtis Major, the polar caps, everywhere."

Later, for his doctoral work, Bell used a slit spectrometer instead of a point detector. He lined up the slit's long axis with the rotation axis of Mars and slewed the telescope across the planet, making an image. He also expanded his imaging work into the infrared part of the spectrum.

Along came Hubble

Bell said, "Mars was one of the first things Hubble looked at after it was launched. It was nearby, bright, easy to point to, and it was a popular target for the public."

At the time Hubble had a severe focus problem, fixed eventually with corrective optics. "Those early images were fuzzy and blurry," said Bell. "But if you go back to that first Mars photo, it's still better than the best ground-based imaging up to that date."

Once NASA fixed Hubble's optics, the first properly focused Mars image (taken in 1993) showed spectacular results.

"I joined the team then," said Bell, "when few people were trying to figure out Martian rock and soil compositions. Yet Hubble's cameras and spectrometer observe at wavelengths that are great for studying the surface."

Complementing Hubble, NASA plans to launch in 2018 the James Webb Space Telescope, which will work at infrared (heat) wavelengths. Bell and others hope to use it to study Mars as well.

"The software has been written to let it track on Mars, so Mars will be part of its observing program, too," Bell said.

Point of view

Although Hubble's Mars is not as detailed as images from NASA's Mars orbiters, Bell said, it provides an "all-day" view no orbiter can give.

"Orbiters at Mars follow paths that take them over the ground at a fixed time of day, such as mid-afternoon," he said. "With lots of images, these can be stitched together into a somewhat artificial view that shows Mars at mid-afternoon all the way around the planet.

"But Hubble's view shows a Mars that has morning, noon and afternoon all in one shot. It lets us see hazes and clouds and other atmospheric features that come and go at times of day that the orbiters are not studying."

Bell's scientific work has taken him on a journey from the classical kind of telescopic Mars observing to driving rovers across the planet. He said, "It's been fascinating going from the telescopic world, where we're looking at fuzzy regions the size of entire states, to where we're now drilling into rocks on the Martian surface to study the detailed habitability of the place."

ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) stands at a pivotal point, he said. "The experience and expertise of my colleagues in SESE, from astronomers to geologists to planetary scientists, working closely with engineers, makes for a great parallel to the heritage and history of Mars exploration.

"Telescopes are still doing valuable Mars observing, along with spacecraft studies. It would be great if we could do a similar transition for all the planets, moons, asteroids and comets in our solar system!"