O’Neil awarded $430K research potential algal biofuel

John Thompson
Wednesday, September 26, 2012 - 10:15am
Western Today staff

Western Washington University Associate Professor of Chemistry Greg O’Neil has been awarded a five-year, $430,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program in part for his continued research into the development of algae as a potential source for biofuels.

“This is one of the most prestigious awards young faculty members can receive; it’s unique in that not only does it support outstanding research but also combines an educational component, which is the integration of renewable energy topics into Western’s Chemistry curriculum and the university’s own energy initiatives,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil’s research focuses on developing strategies to combine cheap, simple chemicals into important complex structures found in nature. Part of this award will support the synthesis of lipids made by some algae to see if these compounds can be converted into a fuel source.

O’Neil will be joined this academic year by three undergraduates on his research team, all of whom will be funded by the grant and participate in the research as part of a for-credit independent study: Josh Corliss (Vashon Island, Vashon Island High School), Aaron Culler, (Spokane, University High School), and John Williams (Battle Ground, Battle Ground High School).

Culler said working on developing new renewable sources for biofuels is a pressing issue with increased topicality because of the country’s continued reliance on traditional fossil fuels.

“Algae-produced biofuels have not become a commercial resource because they are not competitively profitable with other fuel sources, which in my opinion, makes this research crucial,” he said. 

He said that his ability to participate in this kind of research as an undergraduate will give him benefits and experiences he could never get from just coursework.

“Everyone knows real cooking is about trial and error, and so is real chemistry. When a reaction produces unexpected results, as they usually do, I can draw upon the foundation of knowledge that I have built in the classroom and apply what I've learned in the lab. This has given me confidence, and, for hands-on learners like myself, a depth of understanding I couldn't have found in the classroom alone,” he said.

For more information on O’Neil’s research or his NSF grant, contact him at gregory.o’neil@wwu.edu.