The Algae Farmer

An interview with Danforth Center algae researcher James Umen
By Melanie Bernds | May 01, 2013

James Umen joined the St. Louis-based Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in 2011 as a member of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels. Umen’s lab is dedicated to understanding the cell biology of green algae and how they can be modified and harnessed as a crop for production of liquid transportation biofuel. Prior to his coming to the Danforth Center, Umen served as assistant professor of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He was a postdoctoral fellow in the department of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, and an instructor at Guilin Geology College in China. Umen received his doctorate in biochemistry and biophysics from the University of California-San Francisco and his bachelor’s degree in biology from Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.

Q: In a nutshell, how do you describe your research? 

A: We do research on green algae in an effort to understand how photosynthetic cells grow, reproduce and develop. The algae are interesting unto themselves not only because they are a potential biofuel, but because they can also tell us more about human biology and plant biology. There are many aspects of algal biology that can provide valuable information to answer other scientific questions and practical applications. We want to understand how to take algae and turn it into a crop. Algae is at the stage where researchers are isolating wild strains that seem like they’re useful, but the next step of domesticating and modifying them will be crucial for a mature and successful algal biofuel industry.

Q: Why study algae as a potential biofuel?

A: The biofuel landscape is still very much unknown as to what solution or solutions are going to work well. Algae is a prime alternative to study since it doesn’t compete with crop land for food production. You can grow algae in areas that are incapable of supporting crops such as deserts or areas with poor soil. Plus, once you milk the algae for the biofuels, the remnants can be utilized for other industries such as animal feed. Oil from algae is a high-energy “drop-in” biofuel that can directly replace diesel.

Q: What's algae biodiesel's potential to replace or supplement petro diesel?

A: Algal biofuels have gone from proof of principle and demonstration to being produced and sold on the open market. The remaining issues for making a significant impact on petroleum usage or even replacing petroleum involve scale-up, improved efficiency, supporting infrastructure, land and resource usage. None of these issues are trivial, but the progress already made is impressive and bodes well for the future. 

Q: Water usage is a hot topic right now in the world of agriculture. How does algae relate to this issue?

A: Like any crop, plants included, algae require water. With algae, the productivity gain for the amount of water that you have to put in is potentially much higher than in crop plants. Moreover, it is possible to grow algae in closed systems where water usage is greatly reduced. Marine algae and halophilic (salt-loving) algae can grow in saltwater and brackish water; these types of algae provide a twofold advantage with respect to water usage. First, they don’t compete with people or land crops for limited fresh water and second, high levels of salt can suppress growth of bacteria and algae-consuming predators that can invade production ponds and reduce yield.

Q: How will your new algae growth facility accelerate your research, and how is this technology being used?

A: We custom built the algae growth facility because no commercial product existed that could be used for our research. There are some limited options out there but they’re incredibly expensive and can’t scale to our needs. Similar to a growth chamber or a greenhouse at the Danforth Center, our facility for algal growth enables us to simultaneously grow hundreds of cultures under highly reproducible and controlled environmental conditions. We can set the temperature, type of light, amount of light, day/night cycles, aeration, and CO2 levels so that we can recreate nearly any environment and situation where algae will be growing. This highly sophisticated control system allows us to grow our algae very fast and give them everything they need to thrive. As an example, some of our research relies on algae becoming very synchronous in terms of growing and dividing at specific times of day and the only way we can make that work is to control the light quality, CO2 and temperature. Achieving this type of synchrony has allowed us to look at daily cyclical changes in cell physiology in unprecedented detail. It’s a wonderful research tool and all the algae we work with grow very well in the system. We should be able to tune it to grow almost any species of algae.

Q: Are there other similar algae growth facilities? How is the Danforth Center’s algae farm unique?

A: As far as I know, no one else in the world has anything comparable. Our system is custom-designed and was built in collaboration with a local engineering firm. Many companies and some universities have production ponds and facilities for algae, but our algae growth facility serves a different purpose; it’s not designed for large-scale production, but for simultaneously growing many small-scale cultures under very specific and controlled conditions.

Q: What was the timeline from concept stage to actual operation of the algae growth facility?

A: The algae farm took more than a year from the initial vision to custom design and build. As with any new engineering project, one runs into unanticipated problems and delays. One of the key changes that slowed us down was the switch from fluorescent bulbs to LED bulbs. Fluorescent bulbs are problematic for growth of photosynthetic organisms. It’s very difficult to control light output accurately when using fluorescent bulbs. Also, they are not able to produce the wavelengths that plants and algae prefer. LED bulbs are amazing because they’re very energy efficient, which makes them last a long time, and the light output is much higher than fluorescent bulbs. With LED bulbs we can simulate intensities that range from moonlight, to full day sun, to light that is so intense that the algae become stressed and die.

Q: How is the algae growth facility different than a photobioreactor or growth chambers?

A: Photobioreactors are a really important tool and we also use them for our research. They’re very sophisticated and allow you to get many kinds of data about a culture in real time. The downside to photobioreactors is that they’re expensive and labor intensive to maintain and use. For the type of research that we’re doing in my lab, we need to grow hundreds of cultures. To replicate what we do with photobioreactors we would need about 250 of them at a cost of over $10 million, and they would be much more difficult to use and manage than our current culture facility. The algae farm can be compared to a sophisticated growth chamber. Our algae growth facility can’t do as much as a photobioreactor but does allow us to have really reproducible growth conditions for our algae, and science is based on reproducibility.

Q: How does the reinstatement of the tax incentive for biodiesel and renewable diesel, and the cellulosic biofuels producer tax credit affect your research or investment in algae technology?

A: They affect my research indirectly, but the impact is real. Any time an economic incentive is put out there for biofuel, it stimulates the whole process of research and development to commercialization including investment by both the government and industry.

Q: What exciting results or partnerships are you looking forward to for your lab and in algal biofuels? What does the future of your research look like?

A: For starters, my lab just became a part of the Center for Advanced Biofuel Systems, which is a DOE-funded consortium of labs spearheaded by the Danforth Center with the goal of merging work on plant lipids and algal lipids, all geared toward improved understanding of making lipid-based biofuels. CABS is helping us to move forward with a project using a strain of algae that does some interesting things; this strain is able to make lipids when the normal garden variety won’t. It will give insight into how we can alter algae from doing what they are adapted to do, which is make more of themselves, to instead make more lipids for us. We hope to patent our findings and license the technology within a couple of years.

Q: What is your impression of St. Louis and the Danforth Center so far?

A: There are some real quality of life perks in St. Louis compared with San Diego where I moved from; weather and beaches notwithstanding, there is better funding for schools here, short commutes with little traffic, proximity to everything, and overall lower cost of living. Especially if you have kids, it’s an easy city to live in. What really attracted me to the Danforth Center is the mix of colleagues and the cohesiveness of the mission—using plant science to solve major challenges facing our world, and second, having a leader like Jim Carrington (Danforth Center president). Jim has a strong vision for what he wants to do with the Danforth Center and knows how to lead us to the next level so we can achieve it.

Author: Melanie Bernds
Public Relations Manager, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
[email protected]

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