URI student wins research poster contest for project to convert algae to biofuel

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KINGSTON, R.I. – October 18, 2010 – Cesar Alejo, a junior electrical engineering major at the University of Rhode Island, took the top prize at a research poster symposium at Northeastern University on Sept. 24. Three other URI students teamed up to earn third place at the competition.

A resident of Providence, Alejo competed against 40 other students at the Northeast conference of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation. His research focused on a method for extracting oil from algae cells as a source of biofuel.

“Up to half the weight of a typical algae cell is made up of oil or lipid, and they reproduce really fast,” Alejo said. “By growing algae you can produce more oil per acre than from corn or other crops. It has a lot of potential for the biofuel industry.”

Under the guidance of URI Professor Stanley Barnett, Alejo tested a method of extracting oil from the algae using a process called electroporation, which uses an electric field to create pores in algae cells. Oil then seeps out of the cells.

According to Alejo, he worked with the URI Mechanical Engineering Department to build a microfluidic device with a tiny channel through the center in which he placed algae cells. While administering an electric field to the device, the cells traveled down the channel where it narrows and the electric voltage increases, creating pores in the cells.

The next step in the project, said Alejo, is to test other methods for extracting and collecting the oil at a more efficient rate.

At the poster symposium, judges interviewed each student and evaluated their research posters. Alejo’s first place award included a $300 check.

The three third place winners in the poster competition, all URI civil engineering majors, are Maria Beltre of Providence, Marlyn Mendoza of Warwick, and Alfred Rodriguez of Providence.

The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation aims to strengthen the preparation, representation, and success of historically under-represented minority students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. At URI, the program is administered by Chemical Engineering Professor Harold Knickle and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.