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May 4, 2009

Green science | A USM professor hopes his upcoming research in Delhi will lead to new businesses back home

Photo/David A. Rodgers Ike Levine, Fulbright scholar and associate professor at the University of Southern Maine, is prodding algae into biodiesel
Photo/David A. Rodgers A solution of algae is prepped in Ike Levine's lab

Wind, solar, tidal and wood chips get all the attention these days when the topic turns to alternative energy fuels. But Ike Levine, an entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Southern Maine’s L-A campus, is spending the next year of his life refining what he believes is a superior energy source: algae.

Levine was selected for a Fulbright fellowship to pursue development of algae as biofuel, a process that he hopes will be the foundation of a growing biofuel industry in Maine. For the next year, he will go back and forth between his lab and the University of Delhi in India to work with a colleague to test environments that produce the best algae for fuel. Commercial interest in the biofuel has already come from the aviation industry, which sees the algae-derived oil as a reliable domestic alternative to jet fuel.

“It’s a pretty big thing,” says Levine, who teaches in USM’s Department of Natural and Applied Sciences. “There’s been about $600 million invested in the U.S. in the last three years … to grow microalgae and extract lipids from the algae to make biodiesel.”

Levine’s research will focus on how to best irritate algae, which when stressed release fats that can be converted into fuel.

“If the algae is in an environment that is cold, or they’re starved, or it’s too acidic, they react differently,” he says. “I’m researching how to irritate them without slowing the growth rate.”

Levine estimates the technology is about two to three years from commercialization, in which mass amounts of algae could be used to make biodiesel. Currently, algae-based biofuel costs about $4 a gallon; the goal is to get it to $1, he says. At Delhi, Levine will work with Dr. Dinabandhu Sahoo, a world-renown authority of algae.

“The University of Delhi in many respects is the Harvard or Berkeley of India,” says Levine. “Where we might have two or three algal graduate students in Maine, the professor I’m working with has 60.”

Levine and his Indian collaborators will present their findings at seminars in Berlin in October and Washington, D.C., in March 2010.

In the ’90s, Levine formed his own company, Coastal Plantation International in Eastport, which developed multiple products from seaweed, including animal feed, medicine and food. In 2000, he sold the company to investors who wanted to expand it. Levine estimates that the algae industry today, which includes products made from seaweed and phytoplankton, generates about $6 billion a year in sales.

In 2001, Levine applied for a tenure track position at USM. He got the job, then filled an empty lab with $1 million worth of his personal lab equipment and began recruiting students to study algal physiology, algal molecular genetics and algal cultivation.

His hope is to expand his research in Maine once his year-long Fulbright program is over. A state revenue bond earmarked for research and development might send some money his way for further Maine-based research, he says. A recent grant proposal he submitted to the Maine Technology Institute, for which he had $500,000 in matching private contributions, wasn’t funded.

But Levine says the Fulbright award is a tremendous opportunity to further his work, and he says he is humbled by the prestige the highly selective award confers.

“The attention it has brought makes me a little uncomfortable,” he says. “I never really thought about what it meant. It’s great, but also a little overwhelming.”

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