Washington’s gray skies fuel oil-rich algae

[USA] What do Puget Sound pollution, toxic algal blooms, overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and dependence on fossil fuels all have in common? A breakthrough in algae biofuel production may help get rid of them.

Algae biofuel is a concept that has started to catch on in the southwestern United States but hasn’t yet been a viable option commercially. However, the Cattolico Laboratory at the UW set out to see if they could grow an algae strain in the cloudy Northwest that could produce more oil than its southern counterparts.

“People think that if you throw something green in a tank, you’re going to get lots of biofuel out,” Rose Ann Cattolico, head researcher at the Cattolico Lab, said.

But this isn’t true. The researchers had to identify a strain of haptophyte (algae) that could survive the colder weather and water of the Pacific Northwest, as well as produce lots of oil. The oil is harvested from fat stores in the algae known as lipids. The team identified algae in a process known as genome sequencing, through which they genetically fingerprinted each strain of algae like a “barcode at a grocery store.”

They found that Chrysochromulina tobin was the algae up to the task.

Chrysochromulina tobin

“Fifty percent of Chrysochromulina is made up of lipids,” Warren Carter, a researcher on the project, said. “It’s a gold and brown algae, pretty neat little guy.”

Chrysochromulina can be grown vertically in tanks or in open ponds, and they can actually thrive in wastewater. Teaming up with West Point Treatment Plant, the researchers grew the fragile algae in treated wastewater with remarkable success.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, polluted storm water runoff and wastewater are the biggest threats to the Puget Sound because of the excess nutrients, bacteria, sediment, and toxic chemicals they carry. Both are filled with nitrates, phosphates, ammonia, and sulfites. These extra nutrients fuel the harmful algal blooms that can kill off local fisheries, shellfish beds, and make humans sick.

The answer to this problem may lie in growing Chrysochromulina in the waste water. The algae consumes all of the nutrients, and once the water is depleted, it is put back in the Puget Sound.

“You’ve got a little cleaning machine that’s clearing up the excess nutrients, not adding any chemicals, is benign in the ecosystem, creating oil, and reducing carbon dioxide,” Cattolico said. “It’s a win-win across the board.”

Beyond the bioremediation, Chrysochromulina can provide, commercial production of algae biofuel is no longer an idea for the distant future. Sapphire Energy, a company backed by the United States Department of Energy, has flown a 747 jet to Tokyo and back on algae biofuel, as well as powered a car across the country.

“To make it [algae biofuel] competitive with petroleum, it’s just about optimizing the biomass production,” Carter said.

And the team knows that algae harvesting can be more or less prolific, depending on how it’s done.

“By just harvesting a few hours this way or that way, you can increase your yield,” Chloe Deodato, managing research scientist for the lab, said. “Depending on the strain and growth conditions, you can change your yield phenomenally.”

The Cattolico Lab has proven that Chrysochromulina can be grown in a sustainable way, and the members believe that this soft-bodied algae can outproduce the hard-shelled strains currently being used — at a cheaper cost. All they need is the financial backing to do it on a large scale operation.

“We are closer now than even three years ago,” Deodato said. But they are not quite at the level of funding they need.

“People want [us] to do this stuff,” Cattolico said. “They just don’t understand that to do a genome analysis takes money and time and smarts to accomplish. I think it’s hard for somebody when you say, ‘I need X thousands of dollars to understand what the genome looks like in a haptophyte.’ We have to help the public understand why basic science is important to get gas in your tank. Or even just to take care of our environment.”

Despite the challenges the team faces, they have proven that algae biofuel can be produced in the Northwest. Fifty percent of Chrysochromulina bodies are made of oil and can be harvested at a lower cost than the current algae strains in use for biofuel. Beyond the oil prospects, using the algae to clean wastewater is bioremediation the Puget Sound desperately needs.

Thanks to the Cattolico Lab, algae biofuel may soon be feasible in Seattle.


Photo caption: Rose Ann Cattolico holds up a flask containing multicellular brown algae. Cattolico and colleagues sequenced the chloroplast and mitchondrial genomes of brown algal representative in order to understand and identify the different brown algae.

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