Professor Deborah Sills presents on biofuel from algae

Rachel Milio, Contributing Writer

Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Deborah Sills presented her recent research on Oct. 2 in the Gallery Theatre of the Elaine Langone Center for a Faculty Colloquium. The oldest speaker series on campus, the Faculty Colloquium allows for scholarly research to be shared amongst colleagues. The presentation by Sills, entitled “Climate, Energy, and Food Security from the Sea,” focused on her research on the use of algae as biofuel.

Sills received her Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from Cornell University. She began working at the University in 2013, where her research is self-described as centering on sustainably “converting biomass to energy and valuable products.”

In her lecture, Sills defined biomass as “any organic decomposable matter derived from plants, animals, and microorganisms.” She explained her research surrounding the use of “the very large scale production of algae” to produce biofuel.

Sills cited an advertisement by ExxonMobil that spoke of a future in which trucks, buses, cars, trains, and airplanes were all powered by the oil extracted from algae. “Maybe I’ll make you cynical with my data,” Sills said afterwards.

While presenting promising statistics about the quick growth of algae, Sills compared algae to other biofuel sources such as corn and soybeans. “If soybeans can produce 48 gallons of biofuel per acre per year, algae can produce 1000,” Sills said.

Sills was also quick to point out the problems with the fuel source, especially in an economic sense. “Algal biofuels are quite a lot more expensive than diesel,” she said. “If it costs $60 a gallon, what’s the point?”

During the colloquium, Sills discussed the importance of the “Three Pillars of Sustainability: social, economic, and environmental.” While the audience of the lecture was primarily composed of faculty from STEM fields, Sills emphasized that her research was multidisciplinary, referencing a student of hers who is currently studying the societal repercussions of algae-based biofuel.

“That’s what I love about going to talks like these,” professor of Physics and Astronomy Sally Koutsoliotas said. “You get to see the challenges faced by experts, and the political and financial aspects of scientific work.”

Professor of Biology Marie Pizzorno had a similar takeaway. “You need all disciplines, science, humanities, social sciences to understand the big problems we face and work towards a solution,” Pizzorno said.

Sills was skeptical on whether or not algal biofuel is a realistic solution. “Producing algae is so electricity-intensive, and making fuel from algae is very expensive,” she said.

Sills’ suggestions towards making algae-derived biofuel cheaper included selling algae that has already gone through the fuel extracting process as fishmeal or feed for livestock. “We could replace up to 15 percent of the corn and soy diet of livestock with algae,” Sills said.

In an ideal future, Sills believes that “if we could get everyone eating algae, we could take away corn fields and reforest,” dryly adding, “farmers will love this.”

“It’s interesting to hear about a topic that seems promising on the surface and learn about all the factors necessary to make it viable and how it may not be viable,” Koutsoliotas said.

Pizzorno expressed the importance of the Faculty Colloquium for the educational culture of the University. “Students have to go to talks like this,” she said. “This is a liberal arts institution and a full spectrum of perspectives is crucial.”

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