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Engineers’ Algae Processing Technique Selected for EPA National Competition

A team of Old Dominion University engineering students has earned a spot in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) competition in Washington, D.C., next April, where they and students from other top research universities in the country will showcase new sustainable technology initiatives at National Sustainable Design Expo 2014.

The students, advised by Sandeep Kumar, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology, will bring a revolutionary algae processing technique to the competition, one where key nutrients are removed from the algae using a proprietary process before it's turned into fuel.

"It's an exciting competition, but it's also a real challenge," said team leader Jose Garcia, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering from Bolivia. "It's a great opportunity for us to show our work and contribute to find new sustainable energy resources."

Other team members include civil and environmental engineering students Sergiy Popov, a doctoral student from Ukraine, and Caleb Talbot, a master's student from Harrisonburg, Va., and mechanical engineering undergraduate Jonathan Ricci, from Richmond, Va.

The race is on to find sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels to meet the globe's soaring demand for transportation fuel. A recent report from the National Research Council determined that converting 5 percent of transportation fuels (more than 10 billion gallons per year) to algae-based biofuels would place unsustainable demands on energy, water and nutrients if produced with current technologies.

Kumar said the use of wastewater to cultivate algae for fuels, and more importantly recovering and recycling nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus in the process developed at ODU, means that this technology could result in more efficient biofuels. Further, it is a process that won't compete for these vital nutrients with industries such as fertilizer manufacturers.

"We have been part of an ODU-VCERC [Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium] group running an algae farm for the past four years," Kumar said. "The algae grow by taking up nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. We want to use the algae to make biofuels, but we don't want to use or destroy those nutrients. That way we make it more sustainable and cost-effective."

Working in a lab in ODU's Kaufman Hall, the team is able to produce biofuels while extracting and recovering or recycling more than 70 percent of the nitrogen and 90 percent of the phosphorus from the algae in just a few seconds of reaction time, using a flash hydrolysis process Kumar developed.

"This is a great opportunity to showcase our last two years of work through this competition," Kumar said.

The ODU team is one of 45 nationwide selected to advance in the P3 Phase I competition. For this first phase, teams are awarded a $15,000 grant to develop their idea. Following next year's National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, a handful of teams will be awarded grants of $90,000 to take their designs to real-world application.

Early next April on the National Mall, the ODU delegation will join hundreds of students, scientists, nonprofits and federal officials exhibiting their innovations. For the P3 competition, the student teams will offer sustainable solutions to real-world problems in both the developing and developed world in categories such as water, energy, agriculture, chemicals and green infrastructure.

The National Sustainable Design Expo brings together students, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and businesses that are working to create a sustainable future.

The Expo offers a unique opportunity to discover innovative, cutting-edge technologies developed by university students and their faculty advisors, learn what nonprofit organizations and government agencies are doing to advance sustainability, experience sustainable products that are currently available and recruit talented hires with backgrounds in the broad range of disciplines found the sustainability arena.

For information about the competition, see: http://www.epa.gov/P3/.

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