Renewable Transportation Fuels from Algae


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From 1978 to 1996, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fuels Development funded a program to develop renewable transportation fuels from algae. The main focus of the program, know as the Aquatic Species Program (or ASP) was the production of biodiesel from high lipid-content algae grown in ponds, utilizing waste CO2 from coal fired power plants. Over the almost two decades of this program, tremendous advances were made in the science of manipulating the metabolism of algae and the engineering of microalgae algae production systems.

Algae Biofuel Applied Biology
A unique collection of oil-producing microalgae.

The ASP studied a fairly specific aspect of algae—their ability to produce natural oils. Researchers not only concerned themselves with finding algae that produced a lot of oil, but also with algae that grow under severe conditions—extremes of temperature, pH and salinity. At the outset of the program, no collections existed that either emphasized or characterized algae in terms of these constraints. Early on, researchers set out to build such a collection. Algae were collected from sites in the west, the northwest and the southeastern regions of the continental U.S., as well as Hawaii. At its peak, the collection contained over 3,000 strains of organisms. After screening, isolation and characterization efforts, the collection was eventually winnowed down to around 300 species, mostly green algae and diatoms. The collection, now housed at the University of Hawaii, is still available to researchers. This collection is an untapped resource, both in terms of the unique organisms available and the mostly untapped genetic resource they represent. It is our sincere hope that future researchers will make use of the collection not only as a source of new products for energy production, but for many as yet undiscovered new products and genes for industry and medicine.

Shedding light on the physiology and biochemistry of algae.

Prior to this program, little work had been done to improve oil production in algal organisms. Much of the program’s research focused attention on the elusive “lipid trigger.” (Lipids are another generic name for TAGs, the primary storage form of natural oils.) This “trigger” refers to the observation that, under environmental stress, many microalgae appeared to flip a switch to turn on production of TAGs. Nutrient deficiency was the major factor studied. Our work with nitrogen-deficiency in algae and silicon deficiency in diatoms did not turn up any overwhelming evidence in support of this trigger theory. The common thread among the studies showing increased oil production under stress seems to be the observed cessation of cell division. While the rate of production of all cell components is lower under nutrient starvation, oil production seems to remain higher, leading to an accumulation of oil in the cells. The increased oil content of the algae does not to lead to increased overall productivity of oil. In fact, overall rates of oil production are lower during periods of nutrient deficiency. Higher levels of oil in the cells are more than offset by lower rates of cell growth.This year marks the 20th anniversary of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

(NREL). In 1978, the Carter Administration established what was then called the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) in Golden, CO. This was a first-of-its kind federal laboratory dedicated to the development of solar energy. The formation of this lab came in response to the energy crises of the early and mid 1970s. At the same time, the Carter Administration consolidated all federal energy activities under the auspices of the newly established U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Among its various programs established to develop all forms of solar energy, DOE initiated research on the use of plant life as a source of transportation fuels. Today, this program—known as the Biofuels Program—is funded and managed by the Office of Fuels Development (OFD) within the Office of Transportation Technologies under the Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at DOE. The program has, over the years, focused on a broad range of alternative fuels, including ethanol and methanol (alcohol fuel substitutes for gasoline), biogas (methane derived from plant materials) and biodiesel (a natural oilderived diesel fuel substitute). The Aquatic Species Program (ASP) was just one component of research within the Biofuels Program aimed at developing alternative sources of natural oil for biodiesel production.

What is the technology? Biological Concepts

Photosynthetic organisms include plants, algae and some photosynthetic bacteria. Photosynthesis is the key to making solar energy available in useable forms for all organic life in our environment. These organisms use energy from the sun to combine water with carbon dioxide (CO2) to create biomass. While other elements of the Biofuels Program have focused on terrestrial plants as sources of fuels, ASP was concerned with photosynthetic organisms that grew in aquatic environments. These include macroalgae, microalgae and emergents. Macroalgae, more commonly known as “seaweed,” are fast growing marine and freshwater plants that can grow to considerable size (up to 60m in length). Emergents are plants that grow partially submerged in bogs and marshes. Microalgae are, as the name suggests, microscopic photosynthetic organisms. Like macroalgae, these organisms are found in both marine and freshwater environments. In the early days of the program, research was done on all three types of aquatic species. As emphasis switched to production of natural oils for biodiesel, microalgae became the exclusive focus of the research. This is because microalgae generally produce more of the right kinds of natural oils needed for biodiesel (see the discussion of fuel concepts presented later in this overview).

In many ways, the study of microalgae is a relatively limited field of study. Algae are not nearly as well understood as other organisms that have found a role in today’s biotechnology industry. This is part of what makes our program so valuable. Much of the work done over the past two decades represents genuine additions to the scientific literature. The limited size of the scientific community involved in this work also makes it more difficult, and sometimes slower, compared to the progress seen with more conventional organisms. The study of microalgae represents an area of high risk and high gains.

These photosynthetic organisms are far from monolithic. Biologists have categorized microalgae in a variety of classes, mainly distinguished by their pigmentation, life cycle and basic cellular structure. The four most important (at least in terms of abundance) are:
•The diatoms (Bacillariophyceae). These algae dominate the phytoplankton of the oceans, but are also found in fresh and brackish water. Approximately 100,000 species are known to exist. Diatoms contain polymerized silica (Si) in their cell walls. All cells store carbon in a variety of forms. Diatoms store carbon in the form of natural oils or as a polymer of carbohydrates known as chyrsolaminarin.
•The green algae (Chlorophyceae). These are also quite abundant, especially in freshwater. (Anyone who owns a swimming pool is more than familiar with this class of algae). They can occur as single cells or as colonies. Green algae are the evolutionary progenitors of modern plants. The main storage compound for green algae is starch, though oils can be produced under certain conditions.

Close-out of the Program

The Aquatic Species Program (ASP) was a relatively small research effort intended to look at the use of aquatic plants as sources of energy. While its history dates back to 1978, much of the research from 1978 to 1982 was focused on using algae to produce hydrogen. The program switched emphasis to other transportation fuels, in particular biodiesel, beginning in the early 1980s. This report provides a summary of the research activities carried out from 1980 to 1996, with an emphasis on algae for biodiesel production.

In 1995, DOE made the difficult decision to eliminate funding for algae research within the Biofuels Program. Under pressure to reduce budgets, the Department chose a strategy of more narrowly focusing its limited resources in one or two key areas, the largest of these being the development of bioethanol. The purpose of this report is to bring closure to the Biofuels Program’s algae research. This report is a summary and compilation of all the work done over the last 16 years of the program. It includes work carried out by NREL researchers at our labs in Golden, as well as subcontracted research and development activities conducted by private companies and universities around the country. More importantly, this report should be seen not as an ending, but as a beginning. When the time is right, we fully expect to see renewed interest in algae as a source of fuels and other chemicals. The highlights presented here should serve as a foundation for these future efforts….and they may have.

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