Algae attracts more researchers

By Jerry W. Kram | January 01, 2009
Three new research projects focusing on commercializing algae as a feedstock for biodiesel production were recently announced.

The Midwest Research Institute, an independent, nonprofit contract research organization based in Kansas City, Mo., formed a new research center to conduct research and development, process engineering, consulting and life cycle cost analysis services on algae and its uses. The Center for Integrated Algal Research will focus on research and technology developments associated with identifying and optimizing algal species for carbon dioxide uptake and biofuel production. In particular, MRI will investigate how algal species can be modified using molecular tools, and how they can be harvested and processed. These tools will be necessary to use algae to economically produce feedstocks for biofuels, or capture and sequester carbon dioxide. "An area that shows great promise regarding energy and the environment is the use of algae as a mechanism for sequestering carbon dioxide emissions and a viable source of biofuel," said Michael Helmstetter, MRI senior vice president and director of research operations.

The U.S. DOE's Ames Laboratory, operated by Iowa State University, is researching nanoscale particles to harvest triglycerides, neutral lipids and fatty acids from microalgae for biodiesel production. A recently completed research project used silica nanoscale particles to penetrate plant cells and inject chemicals into the cells. The new research project will use these particles to extract oil from the algae cells without killing the cells. Ames Laboratory received $885,000 from the DOE to carry out this research. "It's basically nanofarming," said Kerry Gibson, a media relations staff member of the lab.
Outside the United States, the British government has created the Algae Biofuels Challenge to accelerate the production of algae to extract oil for biodiesel. The government has committed between $4.7 million and $8.4 million in initial funding for the initiative. The Algae Biofuels Challenge is managed by the Carbon Trust, an independent company funded by the U.K. government.

The goal of the project is to commercialize algae-oil-based biodiesel by 2020. The first phase will address fundamental research and development challenges facing the algae industry such as the selection of suitable algae strains for open-pond production, the estimation of maximum oil and biomass yields, solar conversion efficiency, long-term cultivation, and the design and engineering of mass-culture systems. Phase Two is expected to include the construction of an open-pond test and demonstration plant for the large-scale production of algal oil. The total cost of the project is expected to be $30 million to $45 million, with approximately half of that total being funded by the Carbon Trust. "We must find a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to oil for our cars and planes if we are to deliver the deep cuts in carbon emissions necessary to tackle climate change," said Mark Williamson, innovations director at the Carbon Trust. "Algae could provide a significant part of the answer and represent a multi-billion-pound opportunity."
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