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NMSU chemical engineering, Physical Science Lab team up for EPA competition

Students from New Mexico State University's Department of Chemical Engineering and Physical Science Laboratory have teamed up on a project to more efficiently produce algal biofuels using a sustainable energy source, a solar furnace. The team will travel to Washington, D.C., this week for the Environmental Protection Agency's P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability, where they will compete for the P3 Award.


Five NMSU students stand in front of an outdoor solar furnace on the NMSU Las Cruces campus.
NMSU EPA P3 team members (left to right): Peter Dailey, Tapaswy Muppaneni, Adam Willis, Chris Garcia and Edward Garcia are reflected by mirrors that are part of the solar furnace they're standing in front of. The solar furnace was used to pyrolize algae to create biofuels. The student team will compete at the EPA's P3 competition this weekend on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photo)
A freestanding outdoor solar furnace comprised of two very large mirrors, is located on the NMSU Las Cruces campus.
The NMSU EPA P3 team used this solar furnace on the Las Cruces campus to pyrolize algae used for its research project. The large mirror to the left is called a heliostat and the large mirror on the right is a parabolic mirror. The student team will compete at the EPA's P3 competition this weekend on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photo)
Three men stand in front of NMSU's solar furnace, preparing an algae sample to be pyrolized by the furnace.
NMSU EPA P3 team members Chris Garcia, Edward Garcia and Adam Willis prepare to pyrolyze an algae sample using a solar furnace on the NMSU Las Cruces campus. The student team will compete at the EPA's P3 competition this weekend on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photo)

The NMSU team is comprised of Peter Dailey, project leader; Tapaswy Muppaneni and Shuguang Deng, professor and adviser, all from the chemical engineering department. Team members from the Physical Science Laboratory are Adam Willis, Edward Garcia, Chris Garcia and adviser Chris Wise.

Deng said that the project started in 2010 with an idea related to NMSU's existing algae biofuel research, which turned into a proposal to the EPA. The EPA's review committee granted the NMSU team $15,000 for research on how to demonstrate, on a lab scale, the feasibility of using a solar furnace in the pyrolysis of algae to produce biofuels. The team started work in beginning August 2011.

Algae biofuel is a carbon neutral alternative to petroleum-based fuels, making it an environmentally friendly fuel. Pyrolysis is chemical decomposition of compounds caused by high temperatures, in this case, a solar furnace. In other words, this student team is working to harness the sun's energy to extract biofuels in solid, liquid and gaseous forms, from algae, to create a sustainable source of energy.

"We want to use solar energy to get the algae converted into the final product like gasoline or any biogases to be used for power generation," Muppaneni said.

This is a clean, sustainable way to create a new form of energy, the overall focus of the project.

The project has many benefits for the students on the team.

"From a student standpoint, this is a really great opportunity for us to work in a team environment on a larger scale project," Dailey said. "It looks good for our careers, and then just the knowledge gained from the project, this can be applied to our courses and future careers."

A valuable part of the team's work is that they are working with people outside of their own academic bases, in this case, the chemical engineering department working with the Physical Science Laboratory. "It's not just one social group or work group," Willis said, "we're working 'across the street' with other groups. It's an interdisciplinary project."

Though this is a small-scale project, it has the potential to draw national-level attention to NMSU and the university's robust role in research.

"It gives us the opportunity to get NMSU out there on a national level," Chris Garcia said. "There will be 25-30 other universities there, some of which might not have heard about New Mexico State University. This gives us an opportunity to make a name for ourselves and the university."

"We're combining two areas of expertise for this project," Willis said. "The chemical engineering department approached the PSL EE [electrical engineering] guys about the team, as they know that we have a solar furnace, a renewable energy source. When they came to us, we had to sit down to figure out what we could do. They wanted to pyrolize this algae substance under certain conditions."

Edward Garcia added, "We at PSL came up with the design of the vessel [in which to pyrolize the algae] and we did the basic testing in hopes to capture some gas, and ran as many samples as we possibly could for Peter and Tapaswy to analyze."

The team had several challenges to overcome - the first, from a design perspective, in order to pyrolize the algae, they required an airtight vessel, which could withstand the high temperatures required for pyrolization. Dailey said that the solar furnace is capable of reaching about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit and this heat melted some of the materials used for the vessel, such as the seals.

Through many redesigns, the team was able to achieve usable data to publish with their project. The challenges they worked to overcome improved the project, better preparing the team for the competition on the National Mall this weekend.

"We are trying to solve a worldwide crisis," Dailey said. "Right now, there's a very big shortage of cheap, clean energy in the world. This is one facet to the solution to that crisis."

For more information on the EPA's P3 competition, visit http://www.epa.gov/p3/.