DOE to accelerate algae-based biofuel development

By Anna Austin
Posted November 11, 2009, at 12:56 p.m. CST

Valerie Reed of the U.S. DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy talked about the direction the DOE is taking to accelerate the development of algae-based biofuels at the Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy held this week in Honolulu, Hawaii. She said the agency intends to develop advanced biofuels-hydrocarbons and other high-density fuels that can be drop in replacements for diesel and gasoline-in a more accelerated fashion than cellulosic ethanol.

"We learned a lot over the past 20 years, and we believe we can apply that to a faster deployment phase," Reed said, adding that biomass-based liquid transportation fuels are going to be the only adequate displacements for jet fuel. "This is now becoming a priority fuel we need to consider, and that's why we're moving into the advanced biofuels arena," she said.

Algae has the potential to fit in our advanced biofuels scenario and has been a topic of great attention over the past couple of years, Reed said. "Why is this important to us? It's an extremely diverse feedstock that comes from several kingdoms-this broad scope of diversity is something that we'd like to tap into and capture."

Reed highlighted the high productivity of algae and it's massive presence in the ocean, pointing out that if each algal cell were lined end to end there would be enough algae to reach the moon and back 15 billion times. She also pointed out that a troublesome algal bloom near the Olympic Stadium in China yielded more than 3 million tons of biomass in a three-month period. "Their nightmare is our opportunity," she said. "If we can harness that type of productivity, and do so in a sustainable fashion, we can look at this in a different scenario."

In the Billion-Ton Study that the DOE released in 2005, it was determined the U.S. has 1.3 billion tons of sustainably available biomass, Reed said. "We could produce about 60 billion tons of cellulosic ethanol from that, or one-third of what we anticipate we will need in our transportation sector. That's not insignificant, but algae weren't even taken into consideration, and if we have this type of productivity, we can see liquid transportation fuels, from domestic sources, produce almost 100 percent (of fuel needed in U.S.)," she said.

In regard to algae's relevance to advanced biofuels, Reed said many people are aware of high-oil producing algae and its potential to far outweigh terrestrial crop productivity. To assess the current state of algae technology and determine the next steps toward commercialization of algal biofuel processes, the DOE is developing the National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap, which will be ready for publication in late December.

The potential is there, according to Reed, but the barriers are great. "Does that mean we shouldn't approach the situation? No. It means we should and give it the research it deserves," she said.

Reed said major areas in algae that should be focused on are basic algal biology, cultivation and production, integration and scale up, sustainability and economic analysis. "We've already gotten started in some areas of economic analyses, as we're working with NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) and Sandia National Laboratory to look at the techno-economic modeling-where we are today in terms of what's technically viable, how much it will cost, what the baseline is…we're also looking at life-cycle assessments; working internationally with groups in Israel as well as Canada, to look at a number of important issues associated with establishing new algae programs."

The DOE released a solicitation through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 where $35 million was dedicated to advanced biofuels and $50 million to algal biofuels, Reed pointed out. "These are research and development consortia meant to accelerate the development of these fuels. Cellulosic ethanol was done in a piecemeal fashion, and this consortia concept is meant to bring together all the experts necessary, with some key targets in mind," she said.

On the advanced biofuels scale, Reed said the DOE is hoping to accelerate development of hydrocarbons to a five-year time frame to pilot scale demonstration. "For algae, we believe this might be a 10-year time frame, but we're dedicating real funds to developing these consortia to kick-start our research program," she said. "The proposals are in our hands, being evaluated by experts, and selections will be announced at the end of December.