Polk County lakes researched as source of biofuel

Mar 30, 2018
Polk County lakes researched as source of biofuel
Mechanical engineering junior Sean Cloud, of Helena, Montana, analyzes diatom growth from indoor photobioreactor.

Students at Florida Polytechnic University are looking into ways of creating a source of biofuel by using algae known as diatoms, which are found in Polk County lakes.

The search for viable alternatives to fossil fuels is a hot topic worldwide with biofuel being one possible solution. This study, headed by professor of biology Dr. Melba Horton, seeks to determine the viability of using endemic diatoms from local lakes for various technological applications, including as a source of renewable energy.

Polk County Parks and Recreation provided students with water samples from more than 50 lakes around the county. The diatoms they found were grown and harvested in both indoor and outdoor photobioreactors. After periods of 15 and 30 days, results of a preliminary extraction showed a yield of more than 30 percent, which is on par with other biofuel sources, but with the promise of better cost efficiency.

“Algae is already used for biofuel, but it is still very expensive,” said Horton. “This option with endemic diatoms would make producing biofuel less costly considering the local supply and availability of the resource.”

The research, funded by Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute (FIPR), utilizes space saving photobioreactors for mass production of the diatoms, which can also be used for agricultural applications. Diatoms are known for their porous silica shells. Once mass produced, they can be added to improve dewatering of clay settling areas from phosphate mining operations in Florida.

“The main goal we want to accomplish with this research is to grow the diatoms and utilize them for the dual purpose of producing biofuel, and also to mix them with the clays that have limited land use potential so that these lands can be more productive,” said Gary Albarelli, FIPR representative.

This Florida Poly research explores other technological applications of diatoms, including the use of its silica wall to capture and store methane gas, as well as biomedical and electrical purposes.

Lydia Guzman
Assistant Director of Communications