In the future of fuel, we may need to look no further than our local waterways to find an alternative that is carbon neutral, and easily cultivated. Algae, with its ability to convert and store energy from sunlight in the form of oil, has long been eyed as a doorway to sustainable fuel production. Researchers anticipate that when the plant is adequately tapped into it could act as a legitimate replacement for fuel and, eventually, coal and Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) – reducing the carbon footprint of not only the automotive industry but the wider energy sector.
Now, a team from Colorado State University (CSU) is working to boost algae crop growth to reach industrial levels, with the team being awarded $3.2m from the US Department of Energy (DOE) in support of this goal earlier this month. We took a closer look at the project, and how schemes such as these hope to make algae the solution to our carbon crisis.
Giving algae the green light
According to the CSU team, their project was established with the aim of increasing rates of biomass production from algae by 20%, using sensors and ‘innovative cultivation management’ to achieve this aim.
“The DOE has supported our current algae research that has led to a strain improvement to enable the algae to grow faster in higher dissolved carbon levels and to transfer CO2 to the algae ponds much more efficiently,” says project lead Professor Ken Reardon. “The new funding will allow us to use these results in combination with other novel ideas to make another large advance in the rate at which algae can be produced from an algae farm.”
Reardon is the Jud and Pat Harper Chair of Chemical and Biological Engineering in the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering, and has dedicated two decades to analysing and engineering bacteria and algae for the production of biofuels and other chemicals. He even founded an algae club in 2019 for students who wanted to learn more about the organism.
As algae absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, they make for a carbon neutral fuel and this, in addition to its relatively easy cultivation, means it holds significant potential in the sustainable fuels sector. Given that it needs limited soil to flourish, it can be grown on barren land and thus not interfere with food crop cultivation. It also provides one of the highest energy capacities of the biocombustibles, with one acre of algae capable of producing almost 80 times more oil than alternatives such as corn or sugarcane.
“Algae have great potential as a source of biomass for producing biofuels and many other chemicals,” Reardon says. “They grow much faster than plants, don’t require high quality soil, and all of the algal cell can be used to make products. Our work and that of others is helping algae become a cost-competitive, environmentally sustainable route to biofuels that will be important for decarbonisation.”
Under the project, team members Professor David Dandy, Associate Professor Graham Peers and Associate Professor Jason Quinn will use computational tools to stimulate pond dynamics, genetic tools to develop a new algae strain with higher growth rates, and analytics to determine the economic and environmental efficacy of the project. Under the project’s objectives, two toolkits will be delivered to the algae community ‘related to strain improvements and pond operations’. The combination of strain development and cultivation management will then be deployed at two large-scale outdoor cultivation sites.
If successful, it is hoped that the project will improve algae’s economic viability, making it cost-competitive with other fuel types when produced at scale. Fine-tuning technologies around its production is a vital step in bringing the solution to market, and the DOE funding shows an industry willingness to achieve this goal.
America’s Biofuels Push
The DOE funding comes as part of its wider, $34m investment in 11 organisations across America for developing waste and algae biotechnology.
“From food waste to yard trimmings, biomass technology is converting our everyday trash into low-carbon fuel for planes and ships while cutting costs and supporting our critical transportation sector,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm in a DOE statement. “The companies and universities leading these projects will ensure that our cutting-edge biofuel technologies reduce carbon emissions, create new jobs up and down the supply chain, and are made in America by American workers.”
Under the Biden-Harris administration, sustainable projects such as these are gaining traction as the nation ramps up to its carbon abatement targets. The DOE has this year already invested $61.4m into biofuels research in April, and $35m to reduce the carbon footprint of biofuel in May. It is hoped that through projects such as these, the nation will reach its target of 100% clean energy and net-zero emissions by 2050.
Another recent algae project to receive DOE funding is one at Utah State University led by Ron Sims. Sims’ team have developed a rotating machine to grow algae, allowing an even distribution of sunlight to reach the organism. The unit – known as the Rotating Algal Biofilm Reactor – is to be installed in the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility in South Salt Lake in September next year, where the team will study its efficacy at commercial scale. Ultimately, the team hopes to stimulate algae growth in Utah’s wastewater treatment plants, with the algae acting as a filter to nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, before being repurposed as transport fuel or fertiliser. Some of the excess algae is also to be sent to Mississippi-based biotech Algix, which is working to make plastics out of the green organism.
The global pandemic caused an overall decline in demand for transportation fuels, with the lack of profit seen by ethanol producers causing many to reduce supply, or even close operations altogether. As the travel sector begins to dust itself off, demand for fuel is naturally set to increase again. Yet as the world braces itself for this uptake, it is an opportune moment to begin substituting in cleaner fuels, and the US have demonstrated their eagerness to be at the forefront of this change. If funding continues to be pumped into the biofuels sector, projects such as Reardon’s will certainly bring the nation closer to making sustainable fuels a hallmark of their future.