Research Uses Waste Papayas for Biofuels

Research led by the U.D. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists is looking at how to encourage algae in to producing oil from waste papayas and other unmarketable crops or byproducts such as glycerol. The lead scientist for the project is Lisa Keith, a plant pathologist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). The experiments are taking place in Hilo Hawaii and utilizing Chlorella protothecoides algae. They are part of larger efforts to reduce Hawaii’s need for imported oil and energy through zero-waste systems.

papayasKeith’s research uses specialized vats called “bioreactors,” which allow for the growth of 150 liters’ worth (approximately 40 gallons) of algae. Her team selected “UTEX 249,” a top-performing strain of C. protothecoides that can store as much as 60 percent its cellular weight in lipids when grown—in the absence of sunlight—on a diet of 35 percent papaya juice.

In addition to sugar, papaya juice contains carbon, a critical but costly component of current algal-based methods of producing oil for conversion into biodiesel. The zero-waste system only uses unmarketable papayas, which account for one-third of Hawaii’s $11-million crop and represent a substantial revenue loss for growers there.

Keith has been awarded a $1.6 million grant for the project from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Agribusiness Development Corporation.

Proposed Tax Credit Amendment for CO2 Capture

A new amendment has been proposed by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) that would provide a tax credit for technologies that are able to convert CO2 into products such as advanced biofuels, animal feed and biochemicals. The proposed language would create a new utilization tax incentive to complement section 45Q of the tax code, which already provides credits for the adoption of carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

ABO logo“We thank Senator Whitehouse for his leadership and recognition that a number of innovative technologies are coming of age that can help the United States achieve substantial, permanent reductions in CO2 while producing valuable commodities,” said Matt Carr, executive director of the Algae Biomass Organization in response to the amendment. “Carbon utilization technologies are attracting broad congressional support, and common-sense policy like this can play a key role in accelerating how quickly algae and other utilization technologies will improve our energy and economic security.”

Algae cultivation is one viable way to transform CO2 into products such as advanced biofuels or biochemicals and products used in industries such as the health and beauty industries. In addition, the Algae Biomass Organization says algae companies across the U.S. are working to commercialize new technology advances that also convert CO2 to fertilizer, plastics and feed ingredients.

Texas A&M Discovers Algae to Biofuel Breakthrough

Scientists from Texas A&M may have discovered a way to coax algae into making larger amounts of oil. The team discovered an enzyme responsible for making hydrocarbons that could in turn increase the amount of oil algae produces improving the algae to biofuel process. The green algae strain researched was Botryococcus braunii, and the study was published in the current issue of Nature Communications and led by Dr. Tim Devarenne, an AgriLife Research biochemist at Texas A&M.

Dr. Timothy Devarenne studies the biofuel properties of a common green microalga called Botryococcus braunii in his lab at Texas A&M University. Photo Credit: Kathleen Phillips

Dr. Timothy Devarenne studies the biofuel properties of a common green microalga called Botryococcus braunii in his lab at Texas A&M University. Photo Credit: Kathleen Phillips

“The interesting thing about this alga is that it produces large amounts of liquid hydrocarbons, which can be used to make fuels such as gasoline, kerosene and diesel fuel,” Devarenne told AgriLife Today, a Texas A&M campus publication. “And these liquid hydrocarbons made by the alga are currently found in petroleum deposits, so we are already using them as a source to generate fuel.”

“Botryococcus is found pretty much everywhere in the world except for seawater,” he added. “It’s very cosmopolitan. It grows in freshwater or brackish water. It’s found in almost all ponds and lakes around the world. It’s been found in every continent except Antarctica, and it grows from mountain to desert climates.”

The goal of the research was to discover how to get algae to make more oil and so the team looked at how Botryococcus braunii makes the liquid hydrocarbons — what genes and pathways are involved — with the idea of manipulating the genes to express specific traits. Continue reading

U of Florida Researchers Tout Algae Breakthrough

Researchers at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) may have broken the code on better algae-based biofuels. Bala Rathinasabapathi, a UF/IFAS professor of horticultural sciences, said they have identified a “transcription factor” called ROC40 that controls the expression of many genes inside algae. He likens this process to a policeman controlling a large crowd.

UF/IAFS Horticulture Professor Balasubramanian Rathinasabapathi, seen here working in his Gainesville lab, has found what could be a big key to converting microalgae to biofuel. He and former doctoral student Elton Gonçalves found that the transcription factor ROC40 helps control lipid production when the algal cells were starved of nitrogen. Credit: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS photography.

UF/IAFS Horticulture Professor Balasubramanian Rathinasabapathi, seen here working in his Gainesville lab, has found what could be a big key to converting microalgae to biofuel. He and former doctoral student Elton Gonçalves found that the transcription factor ROC40 helps control lipid production when the algal cells were starved of nitrogen. Credit: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS photography.

While starving algae of nitrogen to draw out the lipids, it was discovered that the synthesis of ROC40 was the most induced when the cells made the most oil. According to Elton Gonçalves, a former UF/IFAS doctoral student in the plant molecular and cellular biology program, this suggested to the researchers that ROC40 could be playing an important biological role. The team’s research found that ROC40 helps control lipid production when the algal cells were nitrogen starved. This suggests the ROC40 protein may be increasing the expression of genes involved in the synthesis of oil in microalgae.

“Such information is of great importance for the development of superior strains of algae for biofuel production,” said Gonçalves. “We conducted this research due to the great socioeconomic importance of developing renewable sources of fuels as alternatives for petroleum-based fuels for future generations. In order to advance the production of algal biofuels into a large-scale, competitive scenario, it is fundamental that the biological processes in these organisms are well understood.”

Rathinasabapathi added that this information is valuable for the future for engineering algae so it overproduces oil without starving the algae of nitrogen.

Rathinasabapathi and Gonçalves co-authored the study, which has been accepted for publication in The Plant Journal.

Math Path to Ideal Algae Biorefineries

A joint research team from the Chemical and Biological Sciences Department, Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa, and the Chemical Engineering Department of Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, both located in Mexico, have discovered a way to produce biofuels from algae that also removes CO2 emissions from the environment. The findings were published in a recent edition of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research journal.

Researchers developed a mathematical model to calculate how to efficiently produce biofuel from algae. Credit: MiguelUrbelz/iStock/ThinkStock

Researchers developed a mathematical model to calculate how to efficiently produce biofuel from algae. Photo Credit: MiguelUrbelz/iStock/ThinkStock

To address the issue of cost and energy barriers to the success of algae-based biorefineries, Eusiel Rubio-Castro and colleagues developed a mathematical model to determine the optimal design of an algae-based biorefinery where flue gases from different industrial facilities are used as raw materials. A basic algae biorefinery just needs nutrients, water, sunlight and CO2 to operate.

The team developed a mixed integer non-linear programming (MINLP) model and applied it to a case study in Mexico. Their model determined that using flue gases as a source of CO2 reduced costs associated with the algae-growing stage of the process — the most expensive part — and reduced all other costs by almost 90 percent. Using water recycled within the biorefining process also reduced fresh water needs by about 83 percent. However, as the technology stands, the researchers say that the costs are still too high to justify an algae-based biorefinery on its own. Instead, they say that producing cleaner, algae-based fuels should be seen as a necessary expense in the global effort to reduce and capture carbon emissions.

NREL Discovers New Biorefinery Process

Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have developed a new biorefinery process that more efficiently converts algae to ethanol. The process, Combined Algal Processing (CAP), was featured in the journal Algal Research.

Algal ResearchThe research builds on a project previously completed by NREL In that work, the research looked at two promising algal strains Chlorella and Scenedesmus, to determine their applicability as biofuel and bioproduct producers. They concluded Scenedesmus performed better in this process with impressive demonstrated total fuel yields of 97 gallons gasoline equivalents (GGE) per ton of biomass.

The next step is to reduce the costs of conversion. The research team has looked at increasing the amount of lipids in algae but found the it won’t significantly reduce the costs. However, the NREL team has determined further progress could be made by more completely using all algal cellular components instead of just relying on the lipids. By applying certain processing techniques, microalgal biomass can produce carbohydrates and proteins in addition to lipids, and all of these can be converted into co-products.

According to NREL, the team has determined that through the use of a solid-liquid separation process, the carbohydrates can be converted to fermentable sugars, which can then be used to produce ethanol. However, as much as 37 percent of the sugars were lost during that process. Those trapped sugars “cannot be used for fermentation without a costly washing step, resulting in a loss of overall fuel yield,” according to the Algal Research report. Continue reading

Sandia Labs’ Launches New Algae Raceway

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have developed a new algae raceway testing facility to bridge the gap between lab and real world. Today, scientists have not yet discovered a cost-competitive way to convert algae to renewable fuels. The new Sandia algae testing facility is comprised of three 1,000-liter oval raceway ponds that feature advanced monitoring.

The new algae raceway testing facility at Sandia National Laboratories will help scientists advance laboratory research to real-world applications. Shown here is one of the three 1,000-liter ponds, outfitted with custom lighting and 24-hour advanced hyper spectral monitoring. Photo credit Dino Vournas.

The new algae raceway testing facility at Sandia National Laboratories will help scientists advance laboratory research to real-world applications. Shown here is one of the three 1,000-liter ponds, outfitted with custom lighting and 24-hour advanced hyper spectral monitoring. Photo credit Dino Vournas.

“This facility helps bridge the gap from the lab to the real world by giving us an environmentally controlled raceway that we can monitor to test and fine tune discoveries,” said Ben Wu, Sandia’s Biomass Science and Conversion Technology manager. “The success of moving technologies from a research lab to large outdoor facilities is tenuous. The scale-up from flask to a 150,000-liter outdoor raceway pond is just too big.”

According to Wu, the “raceway” design features several benefits:

  • Easy scale-up to larger, outdoor raceways
  • Customizable lighting and temperature controls, operational by year end, to simulate the conditions of locations across the country
  • Fully contained for testing genetic strains and crop protection strategies
  • Advanced hyperspectral monitoring 24 hours a day

The new facility is already in use with researchers Todd Lane and Anne Ruffing testing genetically modified algae strains as part of a project funded by Sandia’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. The algae raceway should enable the researchers to more quickly identify strains that promise improved performance.

“The bioeconomy is gaining momentum,” Wu said. “Biofuels from algae may be further off, but algae has sugar and proteins that can make fuel or higher valued products, such as butanol or nylon — products that currently come from fossil fuels.”

Wu expects the facility will expand opportunities for Sandia researchers to develop algae as a robust source of biofuels and increase collaborations and partnerships with the private sector, particularly in California where efforts to transform transportation energy are prevalent.

Researchers Feed Algae Cleaner CO2 for Biodiesel

melbourne1Researchers in Australia have found a way to feed cleaner carbon dioxide to algae, which would help in the production of biodiesel. This news release from the Melbourne School of Engineering says the new method purifies the carbon dioxide that is in power station flue gases by absorbing it into a liquid.

This liquid is then pumped through hollow fibre membranes. These hollow fibre membranes are like very long drinking straws, which can be immersed into the microalgae beds.

Professor Sandra Kentish, Head of the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Melbourne and leader of the research team said that supplying purified carbon dioxide by extracting it from flue gases can work, but it is expensive and takes a lot of energy.

“In this work, we have found a way to purify the carbon dioxide and to supply it to the microalgae for a much more moderate cost and using a lot less energy,” Professor Kentish said.

“The CO2 moves directly from the liquid into the microalgae culture by permeating through the fibre walls. Aside from being a cheaper approach, our research has shown that the microalgae grow faster than in other work done to date,” said another team member, Dr Greg Martin.

The process can be used to produce other products such as chemicals, proteins and nutraceuticals.

Army Turning Artillery Shells into Biodiesel

armyalgae1You’ve heard about pounding swords into plowshares. Well, how about making bombs into biodiesel? This article from the U.S. Army says that’s the idea behind Army researchers, in concert with biofuel maker Algenol Biotech LLC, using algae to turn the propellant in artillery rounds into biodiesel.

“Because the algae-based process uses photosynthesis, it actually consumes carbon dioxide,” said Pamela Sheehan, project officer and principle investigator for the M6 recycling research program at the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, or ARDEC, at Picatinny Arsenal.

“So not only is the process not carbon-dioxide generating, it goes beyond being carbon neutral to a carbon-dioxide consumer,” she said. Eliminating the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during destruction of propellant helps the Army reduce its carbon footprint and take action against climate change.

When circumstances allow it, the military recycles metal parts during the demilitarization processes.

However, the algae-based demilitarization method would allow the Army to recycle nitrogen, which is present in all propellants and explosives.

“We’ve conceptualized a process to develop a capability to extract and conserve that nitrogen using a hydrolysis process,” Sheehan said. Hydrolysis is a chemical process of decomposition.

“The nitrogen then is in the form of nitrite and nitrate, and we want to use that nitrogen to grow algae in a reactor. The algae utilizing the nitrogen will grow, and as they grow will produce ethanol, and an oil product that can later be refined into diesel fuel,” she said.

Officials also point out that the process will provide a source of revenue from what is usually a costly, waste-stream process.

Researchers Sequence Algae Genome for Biodiesel

chrysochromulinaResearchers at the University of Washington have sequenced the genome for a type of algae and found important information for biodiesel production. This news release from the school says the scientists sequenced the complete genetic makeup of the important and plentiful algae, known as haptophytes.

“Haptophytes are really important in carbon dioxide management and they form a critical link in the aquatic foodchain,” said senior author and UW biology professor Rose Ann Cattolico. “This new genome shows us so much about this group.”

The haptophyte Cattolico and her team studied is Chrysochromulina tobin, and it thrives in oceans across the globe. The researchers spent years on a series of experiments to sequence all of Chrysochromulina‘s genes and understand how this creature turns different genes on and off throughout the day. In the process, they discovered that Chrysochromulina would make an ideal subject for investigating how algae make fat, a process important for nutrition, ecology and biofuel production.

“It turns out that their fat content gets high during the day and goes down during the night,” said Cattolico. “A very simple pattern, and ideal for follow-up.”

She believes that that these extreme changes in fat content — even within the span of a single day — may help ecologists understand when microscopic animals in the water column choose to feast upon these algae. But knowledge of how the algal species regulates its fat stores could also help humans.

“Algae recently became more familiar to the general populace because of biofuel production,” said Cattolico. “We needed a simple alga for looking at fat production and fat regulation.”

The research was published Sept. 23 in the online, open-access journal PLOS Genetics.