Science on the Hill: Driving toward an algae-powered future

[USA] We can all thank algae for the air we breathe. These amazing — and amazingly prolific — photosynthetic microorganisms began pumping oxygen into Earth’s atmosphere more than a billion years ago. In the process, algae absorbed carbon dioxide. That simple exchange enabled nearly all life on Earth.

Not bad for a group of species anchoring the base of the food chain. Incredibly diverse and abundant around the globe, algae photosynthesize about half the oxygen we breathe. They just need a watery home, sunshine, CO2 and a few minerals to grow — rapidly.

Algae’s appetite for CO2 and their remarkable ability to produce oil might soon have us saying thanks again. A new research project led by Los Alamos National Laboratory seeks to drive algal biofuels to marketability, decreasing our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and putting the brakes on global warming.

The benefits of algal biofuels make them top alternatives to petroleum products and batteries for powering aircraft and heavy transport systems such as ships. Compared to other potential fuels, such as hydrogen, algal biofuels seamlessly enter the existing infrastructure for liquid fuel refining, distribution and combustion. A biofuel production system harvests the algal biomass, then converts it into drop-in replacement fuels for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

Having proved themselves in car motors and jet engines, algal biofuels may work best for aviation because their high energy density far outperforms that of batteries, which are too heavy to power an aircraft. As an added benefit, the industry can also create valuable goods from algae, while livestock and fish can eat the biomass left over from harvesting and refining.

On the environmental side, algae grows in tanks or outdoor ponds using, in some cases, water discharged by oil and gas production, seawater, brackish groundwater and other nonpotable sources without competing for precious fresh water. A closed culture system recycles more than 90 percent of its nutrients and water, limiting their discharge into the environment, although inevitably some algae will escape. To control their spread, researchers have determined that most genetic traits reduce competitiveness outside the ponds. Furthermore, researchers have developed specific traits that prevent the algae’s breeding in the wild.

Because algae grow by drawing in CO2 from the atmosphere, algal biofuels really shine when it comes to their super-low emissions of greenhouse gases. The low carbon footprint, which applies to the entire life cycle of growing, harvesting, refining and burning algae in internal combustion engines, puts algal biofuels miles ahead of traditional fossil fuels and ethanol from sources such as corn or sugarcane.

Several years ago, these performance qualities and environmental benefits persuaded the U.S. Department of Energy to fund research into the real-world viability of algal biofuel. Led by Los Alamos, a consortium identified the best alga strain and the best cultivation and harvesting methods. The consortium also modeled the economics, from cultivating algae in ponds and tanks to producing fuel from refineries.

The conclusion? Algae-based biofuels are feasible. First, however, the estimated cost of $8 a gallon for algal gasoline has to come down. That will happen through research resulting in improvements to algae productivity, the cultivation process and harvesting. Other research needs to address offsetting some costs by producing a marketable, high-value secondary product from the biofuel production process.

To tackle these challenges, the Department of Energy has funded a new collaborative project, again led by Los Alamos, that is targeting $5 per gallon. As the Producing Algae for Coproducts and Energy project gets underway, the Laboratory team is tackling the biggest challenge — optimizing algae’s ability to convert sunlight into oil without compromising growth. Other projects by Arizona State University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and international partners in private industry will focus on improving cultivation technologies, reducing harvesting costs and developing the secondary product, a gel used in surgical adhesives.

This work may ultimately spark a biofuel boom in our back yard. The best place in the United States to develop an algal biofuels industry happens to be along the Gulf Coast and in the Southwest. Biofuels will be part of a diversified portfolio of energy sources, which may reduce the overall demand for gasoline. Electric cars will pick up some of the load, for instance. In any case, the tiny but mighty algae stand poised to make another big impact. So, thanks again!

Richard Sayre is a scientist in the Bioenergy and Biome Sciences group at Los Alamos National Laboratory and New Mexico Consortium. He serves as director of the Producing Alga for Coproducts and Energy (PACE) project at the Laboratory. He is also scientific director of the Center for Advanced Biofuel Systems, scientific director of the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts (under the U.S. Department of Energy Algal Biomass Program); and co-investigator of the Photosynthetic Antennae Research Center (also under the Department of Energy).


Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist David Fox holds a vial of blue-green algae that is part of the Laboratory’s research into improving algae strains for increased biomass yield and carbon capture efficiency. Algal biomass can be converted to advanced biofuels that offer promising alternatives to petroleum-based diesel and jet fuels. Additionally, algae can be used to make a range of other valuable bioproducts, such as industrial chemicals, bio-based polymers and proteins. Courtesy LANL

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