DOE awards $24 million for algae research

WASHINGTON — Algae is a promising biofuel, but making it accessible for drivers has proven difficult.  It’s expensive and converting it to usable energy is time consuming.

To tackle this, the Department of Energy has awarded $24 million to three research groups of universities and biotech companies tasked with figuring out how to make algae-based biofuels commercially viable.

Cathy Zoi

Assistant Secretary Cathy Zoi announced Monday the investment of $24 million for three algal research groups to identify commercialization barriers. | Photo by Energy Empowers

Assistant Secretary Cathy Zoi of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy called the funding the “latest investment to accelerate algal biofuels” at the 2010 World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocess conference on Monday.

“Biofuels derived from blue green algae, microalgae and macroalgae hold great potential but are far from being cost competitive,” Zoi said. “Many technical and economic challenges must be overcome.”

The three consortiums will address these challenges in separate projects that will last up to three years.  

Roadmap to the future

Zoi said each project will tackle key hurdles in areas such as biochemical conversion of algae to fuels and products, algal crop protection and recycling, and integration of new algal harvesting technologies. 

The assistant secretary also announced the release of the DOE’s National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap, the first report in almost 15 years that summarizes the industry, the research needed and the roadblocks to clear to make this green fuel cost competitive.

“While algae gives us a look at the innovative future, scale up of today’s technology remains a high-priority,” Zoi said about the report.

According to the roadmap, algae technology has the potential to produce up to 6,500 gallons of oil per acre each year, which is 60 times higher than soybeans and 15 times more productive than jatropha, a flowering plant native to North America.

Cellulosic E85 Ford Fusion

Novozymes, a biofuels company, showcased a Ford Fusion that runs on cellulosic E85 at the 7th annual World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocess held outside Washington, D.C. | Photo by Energy Empowers

Funding research

The research groups receiving DOE funding:

• Sustainable Algal Biofuels Consortium (Mesa, Ariz.) – Led by Arizona State University, this consortium will focus on testing the acceptability of algal biofuels as replacements for petroleum-based fuels.

• Consortium for Algal Biofuels Commercialization (San Diego, Calif.) – Led by the University of California, San Diego, this consortium will concentrate on developing algae as a robust biofuels feedstock.

• Cellana, LLC Consortium (Kailua-Kona, Hawaii) – Led by Cellana, LLC, this consortium will examine large-scale production of fuels and feed from microalgae grown in seawater.

The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act allowed the United States to invest nearly $800 million in biofuel and biopower research. This most recent funding is the second award this year given to algal research consortiums to identify barriers.

Zoi said that scaling up production of biofuels is among the DOE’s primary goals.

“This administration is fully committed to biofuels and to tripling production in the next 12 years,” Zoi said. “As you know, biofuels are a critical component of our nation’s renewable energy portfolio.”

The three-day conference attracted about 1,000 people from across the world. Technologies and research for biofuels such as cellulosic fuel made from wood chips and switchgrass and ethanol, were also highlighted during the conference, which took place at the Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., just outside Washington, D.C.

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