Nav: Home

Biofuel matchmaker: Finding the perfect algae for renewable energy

January 13, 2017

SEQUIM, Wash. - A dozen glass cylinders containing a potential payload of bright green algae are exposed to hundreds of multi-colored lights, which provide all of sunlight's natural hues. The tiny LEDs brighten and dim to mimic the outdoors' constantly changing conditions. To further simulate a virtual cloud passing overhead, chillers kick in and nudge the algae a little cooler.

A new, approximately $6-million collaborative project is using this unique climate-simulating laboratory system as part of a new streamlined process to quickly pare down heaps of algae species into just a few that hold the most promise for renewable fuels.

Discovering which algae species is best suited to make biofuel is no small task. Researchers have tried to evaluate algae in test tubes, but often find lab results don't always mirror what happens when green goo is grown in outdoor ponds.

The Algae DISCOVR Project -- short for Development of Integrated Screening, Cultivar Optimization and Validation Research -- is trying out a new approach that could reduce the cost and the time needed to move promising algal strains from the laboratory and into production. At the end of the three-year pilot project, scientists hope to identify four promising strains from at least 30 initial candidates.

"Algae biofuel is a promising clean energy technology, but the current production methods are costly and limit its use," said the project's lead researcher, Michael Huesemann of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "The price of biofuel is largely tied to growth rates. Our method could help developers find the most productive algae strains more quickly and efficiently."

The project started this fall and is led by PNNL, out of its Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Washington. The project team includes three other DOE labs - Los Alamos National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories -- as well as Arizona State University's Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation.

VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bykAit_qQg&feature=youtu.be

Step by step

The project's early work relies on PNNL's Laboratory Environmental Algae Pond Simulator mini-photobioreactors, also known as LEAPS. The system mimics the frequently shifting water temperatures and lighting conditions that occur in outdoor ponds at any given place on earth. The system consists of glass column photobioreactors that act like small ponds and are placed in rows to allow scientists to simultaneously grow multiple different types of algae strains. Each row of LEAPS mini-photobioreactors is exposed to unique temperature and lighting regimens thanks to heaters, chillers and heat exchangers, as well as colored lights simulating the sunlight spectrum -- all of which can be changed every second.

The first phase of the team's multi-step screening process uses PNNL's photobioreactors to cultivate all 30 strains under consideration and evaluate their growth rates. Algae strains with suitable growth will be studied further to measure their oil, protein and carbohydrate content, all of which could be used to make biofuels. The algae will also be tested for valuable co-products such as the food dye phycocyanin, which could make algae biofuel production more cost-effective. The first phase will also involve evaluating how resistant strains are to harmful bacteria and predators that can kill algae.

Next, the team will look for strains that produce 20 percent more biomass, or organic matter used to make biofuel, than two well-studied algae strains. The top-performing strains will then be sorted to find individual cells best suited for biofuel production, such as those that contain more oil. Those strains will also be exposed to various stresses to encourage rapid evolution so they can, for example, survive in the higher temperatures outdoor ponds experience in the summer.

Outside the box

After passing those tests, the remaining strains will be grown in large outdoor ponds in Arizona. Researchers will examine how algae growth in the outdoor ponds compares with the algal biomass output predicted in earlier steps. Biomass will also be harvested from outdoor-grown algae for future studies.

Finally, the team will further study the final algae strains that fare best outdoors to understand how fast they grow in different lighting and temperature conditions. That data will then be entered into PNNL's Biomass Assessment Tool, which uses detailed data from weather stations and other sources to identify the best possible locations to grow algae. The tool will crunch numbers to help the team generate maps that illustrate the expected biomass productivity of each algae species grown in outdoor ponds at any location in the U.S.

Data and strains will be made public in the hopes that algae companies and other researchers will consider growing the most productive strains identified by the project.
-end-
This project is supported by DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Potential future work not included in the current project could include converting harvested algae into biofuels, examining operational changes such as crop rotation to further increase biomass growth, and assessing the technical feasibility and economic costs of making biofuel from algae selected through this process.

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,400 staff and has an annual budget of nearly $1 billion. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information on PNNL, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Related Biofuel Articles:

A novel biofuel system for hydrogen production from biomass
A recent study, affiliated with South Korea's Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) has presented a new biofuel system that uses lignin found in biomass for the production of hydrogen.
Next step on the path towards an efficient biofuel cell
Fuel cells that work with the enzyme hydrogenase are, in principle, just as efficient as those that contain the expensive precious metal platinum as a catalyst.
A biofuel for automated heat generation
Biomass is an obvious resource for energy generation with a lower environmental impact.
A protective shield for sensitive enzymes in biofuel cells
Researchers have developed a new mechanism to protect enzymes from oxygen as biocatalysts in fuel cells.
Scientists identify enzyme that could help accelerate biofuel production
Researchers at Tokyo Institute of Technology have honed in on an enzyme belonging to the glycerol-3-phosphate acyltransferase (GPAT) family as a promising target for increasing biofuel production from the red alga Cyanidioschyzon merolae.
New biofuel technology significantly cuts production time
New research from a professor of engineering at UBC's Okanagan Campus might hold the key to biofuels that are cheaper, safer and much faster to produce.
Corn better used as food than biofuel, study finds
Corn is grown not only for food, it is also an important renewable energy source.
Researchers produce biofuel for conventional diesel engines
In accordance with an EU directive, conventional automotive diesel is supplemented with seven percent biodiesel.
Insight into enzyme's 3-D structure could cut biofuel costs
Using neutron crystallography, a Los Alamos research team has mapped the three-dimensional structure of a protein that breaks down polysaccharides, such as the fibrous cellulose of grasses and woody plants, a finding that could help bring down the cost of creating biofuels.
Turning chicken poop and weeds into biofuel
Chicken is a favorite, inexpensive meat across the globe. But the bird's popularity results in a lot of waste that can pollute soil and water.
More Biofuel News and Biofuel Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Meditations on Loneliness
Original broadcast date: April 24, 2020. We're a social species now living in isolation. But loneliness was a problem well before this era of social distancing. This hour, TED speakers explore how we can live and make peace with loneliness. Guests on the show include author and illustrator Jonny Sun, psychologist Susan Pinker, architect Grace Kim, and writer Suleika Jaouad.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#565 The Great Wide Indoors
We're all spending a bit more time indoors this summer than we probably figured. But did you ever stop to think about why the places we live and work as designed the way they are? And how they could be designed better? We're talking with Emily Anthes about her new book "The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of how Buildings Shape our Behavior, Health and Happiness".
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Third. A TED Talk.
Jad gives a TED talk about his life as a journalist and how Radiolab has evolved over the years. Here's how TED described it:How do you end a story? Host of Radiolab Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met an unexpected teacher: Dolly Parton.Jad Nicholas Abumrad is a Lebanese-American radio host, composer and producer. He is the founder of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, which is broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide and is downloaded more than 120 million times a year as a podcast. He also created More Perfect, a podcast that tells the stories behind the Supreme Court's most famous decisions. And most recently, Dolly Parton's America, a nine-episode podcast exploring the life and times of the iconic country music star. Abumrad has received three Peabody Awards and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.