Dr. Andrew Myers, director of the Kansas Polymer Research Center, examines algae samples.

GREEN AND SLIMY, algae may not appeal to most people, but it is a thing of beauty to folks looking for sustainable energy solutions. A group of Pitt State scientists has been enlisted to help pave the way.

This year, PSU’s Kansas Polymer Research Center was awarded its largest-ever federal allocation to become the first group of scientists to perform research using oil produced by algae.

In March, the USDA said ‘yes’ to a proposal by the KPRC to use a $2 million allocation to pursue the cutting-edge research, which would simplify the conversion process of using natural oil to create polymers. Those polymers ultimately will lead to environmentally friendly end products such as floor tiles or foam seats for chairs. The allocation was included in last fall’s Federal Omnibus Spending Bill, and is disbursed by the USDA.

Over the past five years, the center has received national attention for its work converting bio-based materials such as vegetable and soybean oil into products that are produced and distributed by industry partners. With this new allocation, which will be distributed to the KPRC over a three-year period beginning this September, scientists will become pioneers in exploring this sustainable form of research using an important natural resource.

“Depending on what you feed it, algae produce things like oils that we believe we can turn into polymers,” said Dr. Andy Myers, director of the KPRC. Describing
the algae as being grown in large tubes, Myers said the center is working with its partners to acquire samples and ultimately, algae oil.

“Using this oil would take our work from a multi-step to a single-step conversion process, which would save time, money, energy, and waste,” he said. “The field of renewable materials is both popular and relevant to the green chemistry movement that is receiving a lot of attention today. Algae research is an area that has a lot of potential.”

Steve Robb, KPRC executive director emeritus, said USDA leaders have expressed an unrivaled confidence in the research that is taking place at the center, and have encouraged the scientists to explore the unlimited potential in this field.

“This is definitely cutting-edge, and it keeps the KPRC on the forefront of research in that field,” Robb said. “These kinds of research grants are few and far between. In most cases, the money goes out and it is the government telling schools what to do with it. But in this case, they’re encouraging us to explore and they’re as excited as we are.”