2013 brings about breakthrough research to overcome significant barriers to commercial-scale algal biofuel production

Exciting algae biofuels research and development (R&D) breakthroughs and industry milestones made 2013 a noteworthy year on the road to algal biofuel commercializationand 2014 already looks promising!

Research funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE's) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) resulted in a number of advancements that can help make the production of algal biofuel less costlythe most significant barrier to commercialization. 

Notable R&D breakthroughs:

Fast algae-to-bio-crude oil process reduces production costs – DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is receiving national recognition for developing a process to turn algae into bio-crude oil in just minutes, potentially creating a substitute for the natural processes that produced fossil fuels over millions of years. PNNL’s technology eliminates the lipid extraction step and subjects whole algae to very hot water under high pressure to convert the algae biomass into bio-crude oil (a process called hydrothermal liquefaction). PNNL successfully treated wet algae biomass in a commercially relevant, continuous process that doesn’t require drying steps or solvents to make the bio-crude oil. The process of turning algae into bio-crude oil is explained in this video. 

Discovery in algae cell biology overcomes key challenge to algal biofuels – Researchers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography (SIO) made a significant breakthrough in the metabolic engineering of algae to improve yield of lipids (the energy-storing fat molecules that can be used in biofuel production). Algae typically only accumulate lots of lipids when they are starved for nutrients, but the drawback to starvation is that it limits organism growth. The SIO research team genetically engineered a disruption in the synthesis of the enzymes that breakdown the storage lipids that are produced during normal growth, allowing for lots of lipid accumulation without starving the algae.  The resulting algae both grow fast and accumulate lipid at the same time. The high lipid yields that result from utilizing this method can potentially improve the economics of algal biofuel production.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report on these results.

Collaborative outdoor algae production testing facilities come online - Two national algae R&D testbed programs kicked off their project work in 2013. The Arizona State University-led Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3) and the University of Arizona Regional Algae Feedstock Testbed Partnership manage algal biofuel R&D facilities across the United States and serve as engines for algal technology innovation and validation, job training and workforce development, and long-term cultivation data. The facilities, and much of the resulting data, are available to the larger public research community. Follow ATP3’s progress on Facebook!

In addition to advancements in algae-based biofuels R&D, in 2013, a number of algal biofuel companies were able to leverage DOE cooperative agreements to acquire significant private investments, form strategic partnerships, and demonstrate pre-commercial production levels. 

Exciting accomplishments and investments:

Biorefiners partner with BETO-supported companies to move algae oil production toward commercial scale - Sapphire Energy, one of the world’s leaders in algae-based green crude oil production, entered into contract agreements with two major oil and gas companiesPhillips 66 and Tesoro. Phillips 66, an integrated energy manufacturing and logistics company, partnered with Sapphire to test and upgrade the company’s “Green Crude” into on-spec dieselmeaning it could be dropped into any existing diesel fuel tank and delivered using current infrastructure. Tesoro, an independent refiner and marketer of petroleum products, agreed to a commercial purchase agreement with Sapphire. Additionally, Cellanaa leading developer of algae-based bioproductssecured a contingent offtake agreement with Neste Oil, the world's largest producer of renewable diesel, in 2013. Both Sapphire Energy and Cellana expect to produce algae oil on a commercial scale in 2015. Watch Sapphire Energy’s Green Crude oil production process, which produces green crude oil from algae biomass that is cultivated and harvested at the company’s Green Crude Farm in Columbus, New Mexico.

BETO-supported industrial biotechnology company exceeds algae biofuel production target – Algenol began operating its pilot-scale integrated biorefinery, which demonstrates the commercial viability of its two-step fuel production technology. Algenol has an algae strain that can produce ethanol directly, and the system can then convert remaining biomass into biodiesel, gasoline, and jet fuel (hydrocarbon fuels). Algenol announced that it has exceeded the company milestone of 9,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year at peak productivity (for comparison, corn only produces 400 gallons of ethanol per acre per year), with an additional 1,100 gallons per acre per year of hydrocarbon fuels. Algenol expects to be operating at full commercial scale by the end of 2014.


Algenol's photobioreactor system (Image courtesy of BCS Incorporated)

New awards announced for integrated R&D on algal biology and downstream processing – During BETO’s Biomass 2013 Conference, Energy Secretary Moniz announced up to $16.5 million in algae competitive award selections. Hawaii Bioenergy, Sapphire Energy, New Mexico State University, and California Polytechnic State University all received funding to demonstrate algal biofuel intermediate yields of greater than 2,500 gallons per acre by 2018.

New award announced for low-cost algae production – BioProcess Algae LLC, a joint venture focused on commercializing algae production, was also awarded $6.5 million to grow low-cost algae using renewable carbon dioxide (CO2)provided by a co-located ethanol plantand produce hydrocarbon fuels that meet military specifications, animal feed, glycerine, and other hydrocarbon products.

While producing commercially relevant quantities of algae-based biofuels may seem to belong to the distant future, each year brings the United States closer to realizing that goal, as well as the energy security, American jobs, and CO¬2 reductions that accompany it.

To learn more about DOE’s Algae Program, please visit the Bioenergy Technologies Office website or attend the upcoming spring Algal Biofuels Strategy Workshop.