March 8, 2011

Research Points to Algae to Fuel the Future

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Prof. Charles Greene, earth and atmospheric sciences, has been stuck with a 20,000 mile rountrip commute for research. Situated in Hawaii, Greene isn’t complaining; he is a principal investigator on an algal biofuels consortium project, in which the University is participating.The consortium, led by Cellana, a Hawaii-based renewable energy and products company, also includes Duke University, San Francisco State University, the University of Hawaii and the University of Southern Mississippi. The group’s goal is to develop a commercial-scale algae-to-fuel facility by 2015.Greene considers algae to be a second generation biofuel. He pointed out, “First generation biofuels often created more environmental problems than they solved [so] the next generation has to overcome the biases that people have.”  First generation energy crops, such as corn competed with food crops for agricultural land and freshwater. Algae, on the other hand, are grown in seawater, and cause no nutrification of water from runoff of nutrients and fertilizer. Furthermore, ethanol produced from corn has only been viable with subsidies from the federal government.“Algae are at least ten times more productive than any of the high energy terrestrial crops,” Greene said.Prof. Beth Ahner, biological and environmental engineering, acknowledges that despite their promise, algal biofuels are not yet fully feasible.“There are lots of engineering challenges remaining to get algal biofuels to be a reality, but they are engineering challenges. Therefore, if we work at them piecemeal, and we put together the pieces, we should be able to come up with a solution to the problem,” Ahner said. The consortium aims to develop a commercial-scale facility within the next five years, and researchers on the project felt that the University’s diverse areas of expertise –– agriculture, engineering, water management, natural resources, and animal science –– made it an ideal partner. “Although the facilities need to be in places that are warm and sunny, unlike Cornell, we have a lot of the engineering and biological expertise here that we can bring value to these companies,” Ahner said.Scientists are currently working to optimize algal growing conditions at Cellana’s pilot facility in Kailua Kona. The facility is an open­­-and-closed-system hybrid, in which new strains of algae are cultivated in a closed system and then transferred to an open system. While a fully closed system would be fully controlled and contained, it would also be more costly and difficult to manage.  “It makes sense to have a source of very carefully controlled media that goes in, but also to be able to purge out other problems –– whether it’s viral infections or other things that would be out there anyways,” said Prof. Jeff Tester, chemical and biomolecular engineering.To better understand the robustness of the system and how it is affected by the nutrients and stresses present (amount of sunlight, amount of carbon dioxide, etc.), Ahner is collaborating with Prof. Ruth Richardson, civil and environmental engineering, on diagnostic tools.They first extract proteins from the algal strains, and then they use the mass spectrometer as a discovery tool to characterize the range of algal proteins. Lastly, they determine which proteins can be used as a proteomic diagnostic tool to help facility operators better manage their cultures.Additionally, optimization of the growth process factors into the life cycle analyses (LCA) that Greene and Tester are conducting. LCAs allows for the comparison of “all of the energy inputs, all of the material inputs, all of the land inputs –– the footprint, basically, of making a gallon of biodiesel from algae, versus making a similar energy content amount of ethanol from corn, for example,” Ahner explained.Another researcher, Prof. Xingen Lei, animal science, is conducting trials of animal feed supplements made from the byproducts of algal biofuels production. The animal feed is currently more valuable than the biofuels –– increasing the profitability of the facility while also reducing waste, whereas the use of corn for ethanol takes protein out of animal feed.Others are researching the possibility of replacing petroleum in the manufacturing of plastics and cosmetics with algal byproducts. The question being asked is, “What are the set of products that we can make from a particular starting material?” Ahner asked.  The use of byproducts lowers the carbon footprint of algal biofuels production, allowing the facilities to approach carbon neutrality. Algae also grow faster than the typical plant, resulting in more biomass produced per unit of time.“They can actually assimilate carbon dioxide faster than normal plants would,” Tester said.Greene, however, is looking ahead to using algal bioenergy to power direct air capture systems that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provide it to support algae’s photosynthetic growth process“I view the biofuels as something that really is an exciting technology and that will solve some problems, but I’m really interested in where it can help us go in the long term towards achieving not only carbon neutrality but becoming carbon negative so that we can actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” Greene said.His ultimate goal is to see algal biofuels as part of an energy profile void of fossil fuels by 2050. Though Greene conceded that the implementation process was quite long, including transitioning from building political and financial support to decades-long of research, development process and implementation, he does not believe there is an alternative.“We really don’t have a choice as to whether we’ll transition or not. The question is will we transition fast enough that we don’t destroy the Earth’s climate system before we do that transition,” Greene said.

Original Author: Jing Jin