When Ilhami Yildiz came to Cal Poly in January 2007 with a vision for expanding his renewable energy research, he never expected things to fall into place so fast.
In just a short year and a half, the bioresource and agricultural engineering professor has helped the university become one of the nation’s leading institutions in algae-to-biofuel research.
In June, Yildiz and his partners were one of 13 winners out of hundreds of applicants in the USDA’s Grand Challenge competition, which awarded innovative ideas to make the U.S. self-sustainable in energy without impacting food production.
Yildiz says there are no catches or hidden downsides to his plan that could potentially end the nation’s energy crisis through what he calls “our little green friends” – algae.
“It’s here. It’s our natural friend. So modest. So simple,” Yildiz says of the algae. “We’re just discovering it again. (It) has been there, who knows, for how many millions of years.”
The process uses a device called a photobioreactor to grow algae. The algae, being a plant, uses photosynthesis to take carbon dioxide out of the air.
By-products of the process include algae cake, which can either be burned (without releasing carbon dioxide into the air) or fed to livestock.
Another by-product that results from certain strains of algae is an oil component which can be used as biodiesel.
Because it’s a natural substance, there are virtually no negative impacts of using it as an energy source, Yildiz says. The only struggle is finding a working strain.
With the limited help of two undergrad students this summer, the team is looking into the many different strains of algae find what’s most effective.
Among factors being tested are the effects of light, temperature, and artificial or supplementary lighting on algae growth.
General engineering senior Bryan Brooker is one student working free of pay and free of class credit on the project this summer.
“In order for this to actually work, we need to have a lot of algae,” Brooker says. “It’s strain-dependent, as different strains yield different biofuels.”
Brooker has worked tirelessly this summer to try to find the exact combination.
“This can’t be everyday algae you get from your fish tanks, it has to be pure . . . it has to be perfect,” he says.
So far, the results of experimentation haven’t yielded anything particularly life-changing.
“Every day is a little breakthrough,” Brooker says. “But in the big scheme of things, we haven’t had a big breakthrough.”
It’s still unknown how much biodiesel can be created from the process.
“That is part of the research we are going to be doing,” Yildiz says. “We are going to be researching, analyzing all of these different aspects.”
Although the current photobioreactor being developed is structured as horizontal, self-contained tubes that house the algae, Yildiz says that eventually, he could develop the same device to replace rooftops and walls.
As far as expenses go, Yildiz says there will be no additional costs. The photobioreactors would be made out of the same material that walls are already made from.
Unlike ethanol and methanol – which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – the algae process takes carbon dioxide out of the air.
And the best part, Yildiz says, is that it doesn’t take away from agricultural land or food production. The process can work anywhere, whether it be the desert, hillsides, or on top of concrete structures.
“When you compete with agricultural land, then you start competing with food, food production,” Yildiz says. “And food prices go up. And we don’t play with the food of people.”
Although it’s something many have likely heard little about, Yildiz and his students said that increasingly, it’s a process that is becoming more popular.
“It’s coming,” he says, and he expects it will be the future of America’s energy.
“I want it to go large-scale,” Brooker says. “Algae has such a potential to replace America’s dependence on foreign oil. You know, it has a very applicable sort of being in America.”
Although Cal Poly currently only has a small, yet functional, version of a photobioreactor, the university is developing a commercial product.
“This is all new stuff and – at this large scale especially – very new,” Yildiz says. “And we are not talking about a very small lab scale, you know, in a little cup – no. This is a large-scale operation. Production scale.”
Cal Poly was the only winning school in the Grand Challenge competition that is not a land-grant school, meaning the institution does not financially support research-based projects in agriculture.
Solely riding on a $400,000 grant, Yildiz continues to pursue financial prospects through industry partners.
As far as goals, Yildiz says it’s hard to tell.
“There is no end. But of course, there will be an end for my professional life,” he says. “My goal – long-term goal – is to help convert energy-consuming communities into locally sustainable, energy-creating communities.”
To get to this goal, it’ll take lifetimes of professional work – and that kind of dedication is not easy to come by.
“It’s hard to find, not only on campus, it’s hard to find around too,” Yildiz says. “And for the institution here, Cal Poly, the administration basically needs to provide proper support . . . the institution needs to be dedicated.”