James Burgess ’09



Project Title

Princeton Phycological Energy Project

“The purpose of this project was to investigate and analyze a novel biofuel production system. I worked with a team of undergraduates, graduates, and professors to determine, both analytically and experimentally, the feasibility of such a system and its potential effects on the nation’s energy supply and total Carbon emissions.”

“Like any alternative energy research, our project was motivated by a hope to see low-cost, non-polluting, domestically produced energy sources in the near future. Biofuels have long been held as a solution to our energy woes, but are plagued by a variety of their own troubles. While corn and other crops are traditionally considered as biofuel feedstock, algae offer a promising future as an alternative feedstock. Algae provide a simple solution to the food competition problem. Namely, algae do not compete for growing space with food crops. Algae are grown primarily in oceanic environments or man-made aquatic environments, neither of which will use available agricultural space. At the same time, algae have productivity rates (growth rates) that can exceed terrestrial plants’ productivity rates by up to ten-fold. In other words, given the same amount of sunlight, algae can produce ten times as much biomass (and therefore ten times as much fuel) as a typical terrestrial crop like corn or Elephant Grass.”

“In order to quantify the potential economic and climate benefits of adopting an algae-based energy production scheme, our team modeled a full-length production system and calculated costs along each step of the system. The basic system was divided into several key components: namely, Algae Growth, Algae Harvest, Conversion to Biogas, Biogas Cleanup, and Pipeline Connections. Each of these modules was thoroughly researched using available scientific literature and industrial contacts. Our model demonstrated two primary results. The first significant results were that an algae-based natural gas system would be almost entirely dependent on the price of sewage sludge. In our model, we assumed that a tipping fee is provided for the removal of sewage sludge. This tipping fee was the most significant added value in our system and vastly outweighed the value of the actual fuel generated or any Carbon credits accrued. As a result, our system was economic only while scaled to the size of the sewage waste market. This market, while large, would only allow an energy generation system equivalent to about 1% of the U.S. energy market. Our second primary result was the inherent uneconomical nature of the system. Using relatively conservative assumptions, we determined that the costs of gathering and transporting algal biomass far outweighed the biomass’ value as a fuel source. As mentioned before, the system only proved economical when a major adjunct service (sewage removal) was provided as well.”

Internship Year


Project Category

Climate and Energy


Princeton University


Tom Kreutz, Steve Pacala, and Charles Dismukes