Algae-based biofuel could someday power commercial jets, courtesy of the University of Central Florida and its New Mexico partner.

Engineers at UCF and New Mexico State University are collaborating on a $2.4 million grant from the United States Air Force Research Laboratory to develop the fuel, which would save airlines money and reduce planes’ impact on the environment.

“We are developing a cleaner, sustainable fuel that would have applications throughout aviation, from passenger and cargo airplanes to military jets,” said Jay Kapat, a mechanical engineering professor at UCF working on the project.

Lead researcher Shuguang Deng, a chemical engineering professor at NMSU, said only algae can meet the demands for a renewable energy source to power aircraft.

“Algae have the highest energy content of plants,” Deng said. “I expect that in five to 10 years, we’ll start seeing algal biofuels on the market.”

Several groups around the country are developing algae-based fuel. In January 2009, Continental Airlines became the first U.S. commercial carrier to conduct a demonstration flight using an alternative fuel that included some algae.

EADS, the maker of the Airbus, earlier this year completed a demonstration flight fueled by an algae mix. The plane was a diamond aircraft, much smaller than a commercial jet. However, EADS publicly committed to developing an algae-based fuel because it has the potential to be more efficient, less costly and better for the environment.

Florida has slowly been getting into the algae-biofuel business. Aurora Biofuels has been researching and producing algae-based fuel in Vero Beach since 2007. Algenol Biofuels Inc. has announced plans for a pilot-scale biorefinery in the Fort Myers area.

Kapat said the UCF/NMSU project should create new economic development opportunities in Florida and New Mexico.

“We are at a crossroads,” Kapat said. “This is a great opportunity to be strategically placed to be part of a whole new generation of innovation in aviation and space.”

Others working on the algae project at UCF include Richard Blair from the Chemistry Department and Yongho Sohn and Ranganathan Kumar from Mechanical, Materials and Aerospace Engineering.

Kapat, who joined UCF in 1997, has a doctorate from MIT and has received six patents for his research. His research is funded by more than $9 million worth of grants. Kapat is a Lockheed Martin Professor of Mechanical, Materials and Aerospace Engineering at UCF, and he leads the Siemens Center of Excellence on campus. He also is associate director of the Florida Center for Advanced Aero-Propulsion and director of the Center for Advanced Turbines and Energy Research.