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Engineering Student Team Ready to Share Algae-Processing Technique at EPA Competition

The experimental nutrient extraction process for algae fuel has been tested and verified. The value of creating a "closed loop" process to develop biofuels from algae has been demonstrated. The team of eight Old Dominion University engineering students has submitted a report with its findings.

Now all that's left is to demonstrate the year of hard work during the Environmental Protection Agency's P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) competition on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., later this month.

The student team from ODU's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology is one of more than 40 from colleges and universities across the country selected to participate in the national competition.

On April 26 and 27, the ODU team will display its work before a panel of judges from industry, academia and governmental agencies. The work will also be seen by students, potential investors and the general public. A handful of the finalist teams will be selected to receive a $90,000 phase two grant from the EPA to help finance commercial applications of their innovations.

"Now is where we cross our fingers," said Jose Garcia, an ODU doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering from Bolivia. "It's been a very intense process, that's for sure."

The ODU students, who are advised by Sandeep Kumar, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, have worked all year on a novel algae-processing technique, which instantly extracts key nutrients and proteins from algae, leaving the solids, fats and carbohydrates to convert as transportation fuel.

Through the preliminary studies for the next stage, the team has shown that the nutrients can be recycled into growing more algae or creating fertilizers, and the proteins can be turned into polyurethane foam or food additives. The entire process is significantly more energy efficient over the life cycle of the algae, because so much of the product can be reused.

Throughout the school year, the student team has refined the process, with undergraduate and graduate students working side by side to determine which method of growing algae produces the best results after the extraction process.

Jonathan Ricci, a junior mechanical engineering major from Richmond, Va., said he was welcomed into the group despite his non-environmental engineering background. "I came in here and knew nothing about the whole process. But right away, I was involved in design and making real suggestions to the group. It was a great and unique opportunity," he said.

Kwamena Mfrase-Ewur, a junior civil engineering major from Hampton, said his first-ever experience participating in a competition and exhibition has been memorable. "I've learned so much." He said he's likely to learn even more in Washington, D.C., judging by what he's seen from other entries coming into the competition.

"That's what makes this competition great. Seeing what the other teams come up with, what problems they solve, will be really interesting. No matter whether we win, the experience is great," Mfrase-Ewur said.

The reward that goes to the winning teams is substantial. A handful of the entries in the P3 competition will be given $90,000 each to scale up their projects. Garcia said that, after looking at the other entries, he believes the ODU team will be a competitor.

Developing a true commercial application of the technology, however, would ultimately cost significantly more than $90,000, he noted. For that reason, the exposure of demonstrating the team's procedure for nutrient and protein extraction from algae on the National Mall is important.

"There will be people from industry there, investors. The opportunity is there for a team to sell their idea and become entrepreneurs themselves," Garcia said.

The team will also be selling Old Dominion University as a dynamic school where interesting and real-world engineering applications are tackled, Ricci said.

"We know there will be high school students there. I think it's our job to talk about ODU, and the opportunities that exist for students interested in engineering," he said.

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 advisers, learn what nonprofit organizations and government agencies are doing to achieve sustainability, experience sustainable products that are currently available, and recruit talented hires with backgrounds in the broad range of disciplines found in the sustainability arena.

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