UIUC Algae Biofuels

Illini Algae - Student Organization
Many opportunities exist for students to get involved with the Illini Algae projects regardless of their major or year in school. Listed below are the project teams that coordinate together to further develop and promote bioenergy production and environmental remediation using algae. Up-to-date information on the latest group events can also be found on the left navigation menu by following our blog or group calendar. New members are always welcome to join and can email Zhenwei Wu at zwu33@illinois.edu


Culture and Growth Monitoring Team
Team Leader - Zhenwei Wu (zwu33@illinois.edu)

Objective - Establishing and maintaining a productive algal cultivation system is the first and foremost step for the entire process train.  As such, high priority will be given to the Culture and Growth Monitoring Team staffing and maintenance.  This team will be responsible for maintaining the growth of cultures in a batch rotation at the Natural Resources greenhouse.  The team will inoculate and rotate cultures on a bi-weekly basis in coordination with the harvesting team.  Growth parameters will be tracked by measuring cell concentrations, culture dry weight, lipid content, and culture nutrient levels. 

Research Area - Once the growth behavior for a given set of environmental conditions has been characterized, modifications can be made to various factors (reactor configuration, nutrient loading, temperature, aeration, etc) to optimize biomass and lipid production.  Other strains of algae including modified mutants can be tested and compared against the baseline culture growth performance.

Undergraduate Assistance - Undergraduates will learn how to starting a large scale algae reactor including essential sterilization techniques and scale up process, gain algae cultivation and maintenance experiences, and become familiar with different types of algae monitor techniques ie. cell count, optical density and dry biomass.

Grow Team

Algal Cell Mechanical Disruption Team
Team Leader - Joel Krehbiel (jkrehbi2@illinois.edu)

Objective - One of the critical steps in turning algae into fuel is to break apart the cells so that
the oil can be more easily extracted. However, a significant amount of energy is required to
disrupt cells and extract oil. The Algal Cell Mechanical Disruption Team will look at how different species of algae respond to ultrasound and shear stresses in a rheometer. This team will be responsible for performing experiments with a tip sonicator and rheometer, and recording the effects on algal cell using a microscope.

Research Area - We will look at how lipid extraction improves with ultrasound, and quantify
the stress levels at which algal cells begin to break apart. In the future, we will experiment with rapid decompression by placing a solution of algae under a high pressure and then suddenly releasing the pressure, causing the cells to rupture.

Undergraduate Assistance - Undergraduate students can get involved in any of these experiments. In each experiment we will be growing algae, measuring the growth rate, and evaluating cells.
Undergraduates will learn to use pipettes, understand chemical and biological processes, and
have a blast learning about the coolest new biofuel available!

Harvesting Team

Hydrothermal Catalytic Gasification Team
Team Leader - Matthew Ong (mong6@illinois.edu)

Objective - One of the major bottlenecks of algal biofuel production is the energy-intensive dewatering step. Hydrothermal catalytic gasification (HCG) can overcome this by accepting relatively wet feedstocks. The Hydrothermal Catalytic Gasification Team will investigate the gas production and composition from HCG of Chlorella algae using different catalyst:feed ratios, water volume fractions, and reaction times and temperatures. This team will be responsible for reporting the effects on gas production and composition by changing the aforementioned parameters.

Research Area - Hydrothermal catalytic gasification operates several magnitudes faster than anaerobic digestion, and at lower temperatures than alternative wet gasification methods. As a nacent technology, much work is still needed to characterize the HCG process for each different feedstock. We will look at the effects of changing various operating parameters on the HCG of reconstituted food-grade Chlorella algae powder. Future work will explore alkaline addition to the HCG process to improve gas formation and quality. Tests may also be conducted with algae harvested from the other Illini Algae teams.

Undergraduate Assistance - Undergraduate students can assist with the preparation of Raney nickel catalyst, gas chromatography of gas samples, and liquid effluent characterization. Students will learn about metal catalysts, how to operate a gas chromatograph, and how to perform pH and COD chemical tests.

Grow Team


Past Projects

Green Vision Photobioreactor Team
Team Leader - Safyre Anderson (sandrsn3@illinois.edu)

Objective - Green Vision Energy, LLC , an Illinois startup company, has provided two identical photobioreactors, which they would like us to test and gather data on their reactor's ability to produce algae. In general, the Green Vision Photobioreactor Team will be growing a single species of algae under varying conditions and comparing and analyzing data to determine an optimal set of performance parameters.

Research Area - We will be growing a pure species of algae: Chlamydomonas reinhardtii in batch experiments. Our goal is to monitor their growth under varying lighting conditions i.e., strobe frequencies, light intensity and light-dark cycles. We will also have to characterize the reactor itself, because the dials on the controller for the light intensity are analog dials; it will be important for research-reporting purposes to establish a calibration curve.

Undergraduate Assistance - Undergraduates will learn basic microbiology skills, such as: culturing algae in a sterile environment, sterile techniques, making media, taking measurements for algae concentration. Students will be responsible for keeping a detailed lab notebook, taking samples/measurements and monitoring the algae culture on a regular schedule.

Grow Team

Gas Delivery and Carbon Capture Team
Objective - Elevated carbon dioxide levels provide an immediate means to improve culture growth.  The Gas Delivery and Carbon Capture Team will work closely with the Culture and Growth Monitoring Team to deliver, monitor, and regulate carbon dioxide gases supplied to large-scale cultures.  This team will be responsible for designing an aeration system that blends pressurized bottled CO2 with ambient air at a controlled flow rate.  The CO2 monitoring and system will also be required to track the inlet and outlet concentrations for the reactor tanks. 

Research Area - The operational indoor CO2-monitoring system can be mimicked and installed at Abbott Power Plant once the weather improves near the end of the spring semester.  The CO2-data acquisition system can then be streamed online and hosted on the Algae.Illinois.edu web site for public viewing.  Similar to the culture and growth monitoring, the effects of coal-combustion,  natural gas-combustion, and bottled CO2 can be measured.  Testing can also be conducted to compare the heavy metal accumulation in culture water and harvested biomass.

Carbon Capture

Biomass Harvesting and Preservation Team
Objective - Cultured biomass requires extensive dewatering prior to preservation and post-processing. The Biomass Harvesting and Preservation Team will be responsible for incorporating a microfiltration column into an integrated and automated culture recycle and membrane scouring system. Biopolymer flocculants that are compatible with downstream processing will also be tested to determine their ability for cell harvesting. The concentrated biomass will either be oven-dried or preserved by lyophilization for further analysis.

Research Area - Algal culture dewatering presents a key hurdle to the economic viability of large scale algal-biofuel production. Several novel approaches exist for wastewater treatment that may be applied to algal dewatering. Further work still remains to identify and optimize new methods to lower the energy barrier and improve cell recovery and moisture removal.

Harvesting Team

Co-product Extraction and Processing Team
Objective - Algae produce a wide variety of high-value co-products with uses in nutraceutical, pharmaceutical, and biofuel industries. The Co-product Extraction and Processing Team will profile harvested biomass for its high-value co-product content and results will be fed back to the Culture and Growth Monitoring Teams for optimization. Initially, the primary components of interest will be intracellular lipids and their respective fatty acids used for biodiesel production and nutritional supplements. Extracted lipids will be refined and processed by the Biodiesel Initiative student group on campus.

Research Area - Algal co-product production is critically linked to the environmental growth conditions and life-cycle stage prior to harvesting. Algae produce a wide range of biochemicals that will require detailed analytical methods. Additionally, work can be conducted exploring environmental friendly solvents and other novel approaches for co-product extraction.

Extraction Team