Chemistry Alumnus Gives Talk on Cyanobacteria-Based Biofuels

On June 2, 2014 by Grad Forum

dreyfus_thumbnail_1Dr. Ronald Chance visited Dartmouth on May 13 for the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Lecture hosted by the Department of Chemistry. This lecture is supported through the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation whose purpose is to “advance the science of chemistry, chemical engineering and related sciences as a means of improving human relations and circumstances throughout the world.” Chance gave a presentation on his current work that has to do with the use of CO2 as a feedstock for cyanobacteria to create biofuels.

Chance graduated from Dartmouth with his PhD in physical chemistry in 1974, under the guidance of Professor Charles Braun. He researched photoconduction in crystals. After completing his PhD, Chance went to work for Honeywell Corporation for 12 years. During this time, he became a leading researcher in the new field of conjugated polymers and a key player in developing the first commercial applications of conjugated polymers as time-temperature indicators for vaccines. This work led to the creation of the company Timetemp Corporation, which still supplies indicators for vaccines administered in developing countries.

After Honeywell, Chance worked for ExxonMobil for 20 years, first as the director of their Polymers Laboratory, and then later serving as division manager for their Paramins Technology division. He was also a distinguished scientific advisor in ExxonMobil’s Corporate Strategic Research Laboratories, focusing his work on CO2 capture. After ExxonMobil, Chance “retired” to his current position as Professor of Practice at Georgia Tech with a joint appointment in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Starting in 2009, Chance began working with Algenol Biofuels in Fort Myers, Florida, first as a consultant in CO2 capture and later as Executive Vice President and Head of Engineering. At Algenol, researchers are using cyanobacteria (or blue green algae) and sunlight to produce ethanol as a transportation fuel. In order to do this, they utilize the sun for photosynthesis, housing the cyanobacteria in thousands of plastic bags (photobioreactors) that hang vertically in the sunshine.  The photobioreactors are provided with nutrients and CO2 for the cyanobacteria and collect the ethanol that these bacteria produce. All this is done with saltwater so that no freshwater source is being depleted; additionally, it can be done virtually anywhere with lots of sunlight and reasonable temperatures (including deserts), and thus valuable farmland is not wasted.

There are a few limitations to this method of producing biofuel, such as too much or too little light, contamination, or low CO2 or nutrient supply. Achieving economic parity with fossil fuels is also a challenge. However, despite these limitations, there is an advantage in that the carbon footprint of producing algae biofuels is much less than fossil fuels or corn ethanol. Calculations by Chance and his coworkers estimate an almost 80% reduction in the carbon footprint of the Algenol algae system compared to that of gasoline.

Chance has held a variety of positions during his career. His talk provided the audience with an opportunity to learn about his unique career path. Attendees were also able to gain insight into research conducted in an industry setting. The graduate community thanks Dr. Chance for coming back to Dartmouth to discuss his exciting biofuel research.

by Molly Croteau

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