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Bioreactors create a marriage of the minds


April 11, 2008

Last summer, ASU researchers Qiang Hu and Milton Sommerfeld were named as part of a team on a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to produce algal oil feedstock as biofuels for conversion to military jet fuel.

Part of this process requires bioreactors to grow the algae. Hu had concepts for bioreactors, but did not have the knowledge or ability to build them himself. That’s when he turned to the faculty and students in the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering Technology (MMET).

Together, the departments of Applied Biological Sciences and MMET combined their science and engineering expertise to build four different types of bioreactors.

“The relationship is a good mesh between scientists and engineers,” says Jerry Gintz, a senior lecturer in MMET and the faculty adviser on the project. “Scientists do not have expertise in the design and fabrication process necessary to bring their ideas to fruition, and engineers do not have expertise in the science behind the experiment – but they know how to build.”

Each bioreactor has a distinct purpose. The cultures are grown in a small bioreactor located inside the Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology, then moved to slightly larger bioreactors located in a greenhouse. After the cultures are established, they are moved to the larger bioreactors outdoors and arranged for optimum sunlight.

“The large bioreactors are stationary but fully adjustable to facilitate growth of the algae culture,” Gintz says. “Some of the large bioreactors also are moveable to provide maximum exposure to the sun.”

The reactors have different designs; some are 2 feet tall and aligned in horizontal rows, while others stand about 5 feet tall and are aligned in vertical rows. With all the various reactors, the outdoor lab space looks like an algae farm.

Six undergraduate and two graduate students designed the bioreactors, working with contractors to develop the necessary infrastructure and framework for the various bioreactors within the algae farm. For students such as Shaun Whitney and Emil Puruhito, this project provided a real-world experience that they will take with them wherever they go.

Whitney, a manufacturing engineering technology senior, says communication was the biggest challenge for him.

“You learn to develop a wide range of communication skills for individuals on all different levels,” he says. “Also, juggling school and the project was a tasking job in itself.”

Puruhito, also a senior, agrees that balancing school and the project was a struggle, but he values the growth experience. For him, he saw the project timeline and meeting goals with limited resources as beneficial to his development.

“I learned time-management skills and how to prioritize tasks based upon required deadlines,” he says. “Certain assigned tasks required me to become more familiar with new software, too, making me go outside my comfort zone.”

Assistance from MMET was critically important to the research, according to Hu.

“Having the students and their adviser, Jerry Gintz, involved in the details of the design and fabrication of the reactors along with our lab scientists made for an excellent team,” Hu says. “The reactors are up and running, and providing us with results on the biofuel potential of algae.”

Sommerfeld expressed his hope that the collaboration with MMET students and faculty will continue.

“This is a great example of cross-disciplinary activity that focused on finding solutions to our energy problem that involved faculty and students from two colleges on the Polytechnic campus,” he says.

The effort to explore the use of alternative crops, such as algae, for feedstock for biofuels is gaining international attention, and students at the Polytechnic campus are playing a direct role in advancing that effort.

Whitney likes knowing that he is involved in something that could have an impact on future generations.

“As you develop your education and experience, you also have a chance to change the world by reducing the environmental impact while effectively advancing green technologies,” he says.