Research into creating algal biofuels out of thin air

Producing sustainable biofuels with microalgae has gained widespread interest, with projections that these microscopic aquatic plants could contribute significantly to future oil production in the United States.
PNNL's Marine Sciences Laboratory, located on Sequim Bay in Washington's Puget Sound.  
The projections assume the availability of suitable, concentrated point sources of carbon dioxide (CO2 - such as flue gases from power plants - which are currently required for the cultivation of microalgae.

However, such concentrated CO2 sources are generally not co-located where water, land, sunlight, and temperatures are optimal for achieving microalgae's production potential. In addition, the costs to transfer CO2 from power plants or other sources to algal cultivation systems are high.

Might it be possible to cultivate microalgae at high productivity with just the CO2 found in air? Researchers in Pacific Northwest National Laboratories's Coastal Sciences division will be partnering with Micro BioEngineering, Inc. to pursue this concept over the next two years through a recently awarded $900,000 grant from DOE's Bioenergy Technologies Office.

Research at PNNL's Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Wash. and MicroBio Engineering, Inc. in San Luis Obispo, Cal. will use a combination of physical, chemical, and biological manipulations to maximize the transfer of CO2 from air into algal pond cultures. This process, called AlgaeAirFix™, will be compared with baseline of productivities achieved with concentrated sources of CO2.

The goal of this research is to demonstrate the possibility of meeting DOE microalgae biofuel program goals to produce up to 2,500 gallons of algal oil a year without depending on power plant or other such point sources of CO2.

The US Department of Energy's Energy Department's Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) has selected seven projects across the country to receive up to $10 million to support innovative technologies and solutions to help advance bioenergy development. 

These projects will support BETO's work to develop renewable and cost-competitive biofuels from non-food biomass feedstocks by reducing the risk associated with potentially breakthrough approaches and technologies.

The selected projects are:

  • Metabolix, Inc, in Cambridge, Massachusetts(USA), in collaboration with North Carolina State University, will receive up to $2 million to develop a non-genetically modified, non-food feedstock, Camelina sativa, with significantly increased seed yield and oil content to maximize oil yields per acre, thereby enabling the widespread use of a currently underutilized non-food feedstock.
  • Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (Richland, Washington), in collaboration with MicroBio Engineering Inc, will receive up to $900,000 to develop a process to produce microalgae directly from CO2 in air at high productivities, thereby decoupling algal growth from CO2 sources.|
  • The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio), in collaboration with the University of Alabama and Green Biologics, Inc., will receive up to $1.2 million to develop a cellulosic butanol production process with high productivities, yields, and carbon conversion through novel metabolic engineering of two different pathways.|
  • The University of California, Riverside (Riverside, California), in collaboration with the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and CogniTek, will receive up to $1 million to further develop a co-solvent pretreatment for high yields of clean fuel precursor fractions that can significantly improve downstream chemical catalytic upgrading to final biofuel additives.
  • OPX Biotechnologies (Boulder, Colorado) will receive up to $2 million to develop the production of cost-competitive C8 fatty acid derivatives (which can readily be converted to high-performance lubricants and synthetic oils) from cellulosic sugars via novel metabolic engineering pathways.
  • Kiverdi Inc. (Berkeley, California), in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, will receive up to $2 million to further develop processes and genetic tools to produce hydrocarbons in previously unengineered bacteria that directly utilize biomass-derived syngas for growth.|
  • The Gas Technology Institute (Des Plaines, Illinois), in collaboration with W.R. Grace and Company and Michigan Technological University, will receive up to $1.4 million to develop a process to catalytically convert biomass and methane into hydrocarbon liquid fuels and chemicals at high yields, while simultaneously decreasing hydrogen consumption.