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Bruce Bugbee, a professor in Utah State University’s Department of Plants, Soils and Climate, has worked with colleagues in the College of Science and the College of Engineering at USU on a research project that could improve the nutrient value of foods.
Bugbee and his colleagues have been studying microalgae for several years. The initial studies sought to grow algae to produce fuel, specifically jet fuel.
During their research, the group discovered that microalgae has a unique property: it produces healthy cooking oils. For many years, hydrogenated soybean oil has been used in food products, because it is inexpensive. However hydrogenated soybean oil contains trans fats that increase the risk of coronary heart disease by raising levels of LDL cholesterol and lowering levels of “good” HDL cholesterol.
Currently, soybean oil is being replaced with palm oil, a healthier alternative. However, obtaining these oils from tropical palm has significant environmental costs, while the use of microalgae is a healthy alternative without that cost.
“The goal is to make algae a new kind of agricultural commodity,” Bugbee said. “Give farmers another option for a crop.”
Microalgae don’t compete with crops for water, because it can be grown in salt water. In Utah, salt water is plentiful with large sources found in the Great Salt Lake and saline aquifers. Microalgae can also be grown in desert, rocky and arid areas and can be harvested every seven days.
Bugbee estimates microalgae can produce three times more oil per acre than most other oil-producing crops, but the current cost of microalgae production is also about three times higher. He said it’s a big investment per acre, because it is grown in tanks that require aeration and continuous mixing.
Additionally, Bugbee said one challenge of growing the algae is getting the good stuff to grow and keeping the disease out. Bugbee said several private companies started producing algae but most of them went out of business, because it was harder than they expected.
“Some say it will never get there,” Bugbee said.
However, Bugbee is hopeful.
“This is what universities do,” he said. “We take on the really hard projects that private companies don’t have the patience for.”
Currently, Bugbee said the research team is continuing to refine procedures and processes to make the operation more efficient and affordable.