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'Global Inquiry Group' will study biofuels and algae

  • Algae studyA red alga grows among blades of eelgrass. VIMS recently received seed funding from the William & Mary to establish a multidisciplinary study group to explore the use of algae as a source of biofuels.

    Photo courtesy of David Malmquist

    Algae study

Professor Elizabeth Canuel of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and colleagues have received seed funding from the College of William and Mary to establish a multidisciplinary study group to explore the use of algae as a source of biofuels.

Their "exploratory Global Inquiry Group," or e-GIG, grew out of the collaborators' on-going interests in addressing two of humanity's most pressing problems: the urgent need to develop sustainable sources of energy, and to lessen the environmental impacts of energy use.

Joining Canuel in the project are co-cordinator Rob Hinkle, an associate professor of Chemistry, as well as Tina Bunai (Associate Research Professor, Applied Science), William Cooke (Professor of Physics), Emmett Duffy (Loretta and Lewis Glucksman Professor of Marine Science), Sarah Stafford (Paul Verkuil Associate Professor of Economics and Public Policy), John Swaddle (Assoc. Professor of Biology), Gene Tracy (Chancellor Professor of Physics and Applied Science), and Mike Unger (Research Associate Professor of Environmental and Aquatic Animal Health).

Canuel and colleagues are actively exploring the potential of growing and harvesting wild algae within wastewater streams to produce economic quantities of liquid biofuels. "There are several benefits to this approach," says Canuel. "It's relatively inexpensive, it's low-tech, and it can be used on a large scale. Most appealing is that it would solve two problems at once: providing a renewable fuel while simultaneously keeping excess nutrients out of coastal waters."

Producing biofuels from corn or other grains can have the opposite effect, due to the large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer typically applied to these crops. Excess nitrogen fuels algal blooms in Chesapeake Bay and other coastal waters worldwide. These blooms shade underwater grasses and can rob the water of oxygen when the tiny plants die, sink, and decompose. Some blooms produce toxins that can kill fish and lead to shellfish closures.

The specific goals of the e-GIG will be to identify promising sites in Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere around the world for application of the technology, and to develop proposals for funding associated research efforts. The group will host a number of seminars and discussions throughout the spring 2009 semester.

Global inquiry groups are the brainchild of Laurie Koloski, Director of the Reves Center for International Studies at W&M, and Joel Schwartz, Director of the Roy R. Charles Center for interdisciplinary programs.

The first four e-GIGs were funded in 2006. The idea was to provide a small amount of seed money to encourage collaboration among faculty from different departments and disciplines on a topic of shared interest.

In some cases, eGIGs have led to longer-term, globally focused projects sustained or s-GIGs. The s-GIGs are funded for two or three years, with a goal of becoming ongoing signature programs. One such program is Mercury: A Hazard without Borders, which focuses on mercury contamination, an increasingly prevalent problem across the globe.

The mercury project is headed by W&M Biology Professor Dan Cristol and English and Film Studies Professor Sharon Zuber, with significant contributions from VIMS Professor Mike Newman, a world-renowned expert on the source and fate of mercury in aquatic systems.

Canuel notes that her project fits closely with many of the Collegeís long-term goals. "Our work complements efforts to create a more sustainable campus, and addresses priorities identified during the College's ongoing strategic planning process, including making the campus more entrepreneurial, increasing corporate partnerships, and expanding its international focus."

The project will run in parallel to wide-ranging work by a number of outside investigators with William & Mary, led by the W&M Research Institute's Director of Energy Ventures Jay Diedzic. Diedzic is collaborating on the college's behalf with a number of firms that are working on water-based energy issues involving the use of algae as a biofuel.