Earlier this year, the United States’ government announced several grants going towards algae research, one of the largest going towards the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts. This consortium received $44 million and is headed by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. In addition to this investment, other areas of the government have financially vested themselves in algae biofuels as well.
However, it seems that the U.S. government isn’t done investing in the future of algae fuels. Just last month, the government announced that it will be investing even more into the algae research field, $24 million more to be precise. This grant will be split between three different consortiums, each focusing on a different area of research.
Here are the details from the U.S. Department of Energy’s press release:
Sustainable Algal Biofuels Consortium (Mesa, Arizona): Led by Arizona State University, this consortium will focus on testing the acceptability of algal biofuels as replacements for petroleum-based fuels. Tasks include investigating biochemical conversion of algae to fuels and products, and analyzing physical chemistry properties of algal fuels and fuel intermediates. (DOE share: up to $6 million)
Consortium for Algal Biofuels Commercialization (San Diego, California): Led by the University of California, San Diego, this consortium will concentrate on developing algae as a robust biofuels feedstock. Tasks include investigating new approaches for algal crop protection, algal nutrient utilization and recycling, and developing genetic tools. (DOE funding: up to $9 million)
Cellana, LLC Consortium (Kailua-Kona, Hawaii): Led by Cellana, LLC, this consortium will examine large-scale production of fuels and feed from microalgae grown in seawater. Tasks include integrating new algal harvesting technologies with pilot-scale cultivation test beds, and developing marine microalgae as animal feed for the aquaculture industry. (DOE funding: up to $9 million)
I have seen some hint that these sorts of investments just lead to more research, which they seem to imply isn’t needed for successful commercialization efforts. However, this isn’t the case and more research is exactly what is needed. In fact, the DOE’s recent release of the finalized “National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap” states that much.
See, with algae, we seem to be somewhere in the middle of the entire development and commercialization process. What I mean by this is that we have scientifically proven that we can produce algae oil, which can be refined into the various products we need. That is the “first” stage that needed to be accomplished and, essentially, has been since algae biofuel research first started.
The “last” stage required before algae biofuels can be successfully commercialized has also already been completed. This stage refers to the infrastructure needed to refine, transport, and run the fuels. Since algal fuels can essentially be used the exact same way as petroleum fuels, no vast overhaul of our transportation infrastructure will be required. This means that the vast majority infrastructure is already in place and fuel produced from algae can be run in your car’s current engine.
What is missing is the whole “middle” stage, which consists of research to develop methods that takes the algae oil we know we can produce and cut down the costs to levels that are cost competitive with traditional petroleum.
That is what grants like these are trying to do. Just like the DOE’s $44 million grant to set up NAABB, each research consortium will focus on a specific aspect of the algae production model (growth, harvesting, extraction, contamination control, etc.) and try to develop a cost effective way to do it.
The great news is that once we have this “middle research” completed, the time to widespread commercialization will be reduced since the infrastructure is already in place.
One of the lead authors on the DOE’s roadmap stated this optimistic view about what grants like these can accomplish.
“Biotechnology has come a long way” since the earlier project, says Valerie Sarisky-Reed of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, one of the lead authors of the roadmap. “With a dedicated research and development program, we can bring the economics to a suitable place within a 10-year time frame,” she says. “We chose to invest in it again because we felt we were within striking distance.”
While grants like these won’t be the magic bullet to answering all the algae barriers, when they are combined with the research and development from private companies’, the future of algae biofuels certainly looks bright.
Article by Jonathan Williams appearing courtesy Celsias.