Molecular Swiss Army Knife Improves Algae-Fuel

A molecular Swiss Army knife may hold the key to making blue-green algae biofuel and biochemical production more viable. A research team from Michigan State University (MSU) fabricated a synthetic protein that both improves the assembly of the carbon-fixing factory of cyanobacteria while providing proof of concept for a device that could potentially improve plant photosynthesis or be used to install new metabolic pathways in bacteria. Study results were published this month in The Plant Cell journal.

MSU scientists have built a molecular Swiss Army knife that makes biofuels and other green chemical production from algae more viable. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

MSU scientists have built a molecular Swiss Army knife that makes biofuels and other green chemical production from algae more viable. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

“The multifunctional protein we’ve built can be compared to a Swiss Army knife,” explained Raul Gonzalez-Esquer, MSU doctoral researcher and the paper’s lead author. “From known, existing parts, we’ve built a new protein that does several essential functions.”

For this research, Gonzalez-Esquer worked with Cheryl Kerfeld, the Hannah Distinguished Professor of Structural Bioengineering in MSU’s-DOE Plant Research Lab, and Tyler Shubitowski, MSU undergraduate student. Kerfield’s lab studies bacterial microcompartments, or BMCs. These are self-assembling cellular organs that perform myriad metabolic functions. In other words, they can be though of as molecular factories with many different pieces of machinery.

The research team modernized the factory by creating, in essence, a hybrid protein in cyanobacteria, organisms that have many potential uses for making green chemicals or biofuels. Basically the protein speeds up the process of taking CO2 out of the athmosphere and converting it to sugars.

“It’s comparable to making coffee. Rather than getting an oven to roast the coffee beans, a grinder to process them and a brewing machine, we’ve built a single coffeemaker where it all happens in one place,” Gonzalez-Esquer said. “The new tool takes raw material and produces the finished product with a smaller investment.”

However, this altered cyanobacterial species won’t be taking over any ponds near you just yet. While the improved organisms excel at photosynthesis in a lab setting, the researchers said they are still ill prepared to compete with other bacteria. Hopefully, this will change as the team continues to develop and refine the photosynthesis process in algae.

Algenol’s Algae-based Ethanol to Be Sold Via Protec

Protec Fuel Management has taken another innovative route to bring ethanol to consumers. The company has signed an agreement to market and distribute Algenol Biotech’s algae-based ethanol being produced in Fort Myers, Florida. In addition, Protec will purchase 18 million gallons per year from Algenol’s commercial plant expected to be online in 2016 and distribute the fuel as E15 and E85 in both retail stations for consumers and stations dedicated to fleets.

Algenol makes ethanol from algae“This alliance is a logical step for Algenol as our commercial fuels are coming on-line,” said Algenol Founder and CEO Paul Woods. “We are excited about partnering with a successful, innovative renewable fuels distributor, who is knowledgeable in the regional and Florida ethanol market and has the expertise and relationships to grow the partnership nationally.”

According to Algenol, the partnership will enable them to leverage Protec’s established network of retail clients for the distribution of Algenol’s E85, E15 and other advanced biofuels. While the partnership will initially focus on Florida, the agreement provides for expansion into a national partnership scope as Algenol develops projects in other markets. Algenol’s Florida-based production facilities will provide both parties and their customers with a substantial margin advantage versus fuels shipped from out-of-state.

“We know that advanced ethanol is a key element of the future of fuels, and we are excited to partner with Algenol, the leader in the development of algae-based fuels,” added Todd Garner, CEO, Protec Fuel. “The key components and priority of ethanol’s use are sustainability, cleaner air, and to provide the public with lower-cost fuel,” he said. “To be able to offer a fuel that can accomplish the three key components only bolsters this advanced biofuel’s future.”

This agreement follows a series of successful commercialization milestones achieved by Algenol, which include its pathway approval by the EPA in December 2014, its organism approval by both the state of Florida and by the EPA in the same year, and the June 2015 completion of its 2-acre commercial demonstration module funded in part by a $25 million DOE Recovery Act grant. Algenol is producing ethanol meeting the D4806 ASTM specifications on a daily basis, and it can be sold commercially as E85.

Tokyo Scientists Increase Algal Oil Production

Hiroyuki Ohta, a researcher at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, together with scientists based at institutions across Tokyo, Japan, have discovered a way of increasing the oil production in algae. The oils are used to create biofuels and biochemicals and researchers are looking for ways to increase the production of triacylglycerols in the Nannochloropsis algal strain NIES-2145.

Triacylglycerols, or TAGs, are a class of lipids which form the backbone to biofuels in algae. The molecules are comprised of glycerol attached to three fatty acid chains, and microalgae is known to produce more TAGs under nutrient stress conditions. When the algal strain Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is starved of phosphorus, TAGs accumulate rapidly following the overexpression of an enzyme known as CrDGTT4, which in turn is triggered by gene promoter SQD2.

03_chlamydomonas6-2_color1aOhta and his team conducted genetic analysis of NIES-2145 and uncovered a homolog of the SQD2 gene. This implied a common expression control system between algal species in response to nutrient stress. The researchers decided to place both CrDGTT4 from C. reinhardtii and its SQD2 promoter into NIES-2145 to find out if this combination could control levels of TAGs production. Their attempt was successful – the SQD2 promoter was able to drive CrDGTT4 expression in NIES-2145 under phosphorus starvation without disturbing the membrane structure of the microalgae, and the production of TAGs in NIES-2145 increased as a result. Notably, incorporation of oleic acid (a preferentially utilized substrate by CrDGTT4) into TAG molecules was enhanced.

The findings point to the possibility of manipulating the production of TAGs, and thereforebiofuel oil production, in multiple microalgal strains. Further research is needed in order to fully understand the processes behind lipid remodeling during phosphorus starvation in algae before these methods are trialled on a larger scale.

Algae Biomass Summit to Highlight Comm’l Potential

ABOScientists and industry innovators will be talking about the commercial potential of algae at the upcoming 9th Annual Algae Biomass Summit, taking place in Washington, DC. This news release from the Algae Biomass Organization says the summit happens Sept. 30th-Oct. 2nd and features nearly 30 oral presentations on the business strategies, technologies and sustainable production methods that are bringing to market algae-based products, such as fuels.

“The leaders of the algae industry and research community are gathering in Washington, DC for the very first time at this year’s Algae Biomass Summit to highlight the unprecedented progress we have seen in algae’s potential to impact a number of multi-billion dollar markets,” said Al Darzins, Program Chair for the Algae Biomass Summit. “Companies from around the nation, and the world, are unveiling new production and process technologies, new facilities, new purchase agreements and other milestones. The commercial potential of these projects in terms of revenues, jobs and production yields will be hot topics at this year’s summit.”

The summit will have four tracks and more than 100 live presentations.

More information is available here.

The Quest for a Sustainable Highway

The Mission Zero Corridor Project in Troup County West Georgia is trying to build a ‘green highway’. The travel corridor would, according to Innovia Technology, who has been commissioned for the project, rethink the purpose and function of infrastructure to generate social, environmental and economic value.

Ray-C-Anderson-Memorial-Highway-Exit-14-artist-impressionSome of the technologies being looked at for the project include algae biodiesel gas stations, smart solar-powered roads, moon-cycle adjusting lights, wildlife bridges, driverless cars, electric-car charging lanes and cultural greenways.

“Worldwide the highway infrastructure is continuously maintained, rebuilt and expanded at considerable economic and environmental cost. The Mission Zero Corridor Project is proposing an alternative future where highways have a positive impact on our communities. It’s very exciting to be involved in making this vision a reality,” said Alastair MacGregor, CEO of Innovia Technology, of the challenge ahead.

The late Ray C. Anderson, founder of Interface, Inc. developed the Mission Zero framework to eliminate Interface’s environmental impact while maintaining productivity and still turning a profit. The aim was a promise to “eliminate any negative impacts the company may have on the environment by 2020” and the framework created a blueprint for business sustainability. As a memorial, the Ray C Anderson Foundation is using a 16 mile stretch of Interstate 85 as the living experiment of the “regenerative, restorative and sustainable highway”.

To get the project started the Foundation and Interface funded a vision study through The Georgia Conservancy’s Blueprints for Successful Communities program. Using Interface’s Mission Zero framework as a roadmap, graduate students in the School of Architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, with studio instruction from a team of architects from Perkins+Will in Atlanta, explored how a highway could be a tool of change. The outcome was an inspirational report that identifies a broad range of potential technologies and opportunities. Innovia’s role is to provide a creative exploration of new opportunities, evaluate the technologies for viability and scalability, and to propose a strategy to bring the vision to life.

Scottish Scientists Identify Algae Best for Biofuels

stephenslocombe1Scientists in Scotland have identified which algae are the best for biofuels. This article from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) says the researchers used a new technique to figure out which ocean-based strains had the highest oil content.

The screening revealed two marine strains, Nannochloropis oceanica and Chlorella vulgaris, which had a dry-weight oil content of more than 50 per cent. This makes them ideal sources of biofuel for vehicles and aircraft.

The results of the screening, part of the BioMara project, have been published in Nature’s online journal Scientific Reports and are likely to help bring forward research into algae as a source of biodiesel and other biofuels by a number of years.

SAMS scientists have demonstrated that Nannochloropsis, for example, is very efficient at converting nutrients, so it has the perfect combination of high levels of oil and high productivity.

The report’s lead author, Dr Stephen Slocombe, SAMS research associate in molecular biology, said: “In order to produce biofuels from micro-algae we will have to generate high yields, so we need to know which strains will produce the most oil.

“While there is a lot of work being done on micro-algae biotechnology – currently around 10,000 researchers across the world – no-one has identified a shortlist of the best performing strains and how their properties could be used.”

The research also identified algae varieties best for the health food industry.

Bacteria to Help Grow Better Algae for Biodiesel

rotifer1We hear a lot about probiotics when it comes to nutrition for people. But research in California is developing probiotic bacteria that will help protect algae that can be turned into biodiesel. This article from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory says scientists there have received an additional $1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop the bacteria to combat pond infestation and increase ecosystem function and resilience.

Annual productivity is a key metric for algal biofuel production that, if optimized, could significantly decrease and stabilize biofuel price per gallon. Since grazers can result in a 30 percent loss in annual biomass productivity, a consistent mechanism for preventing predators will increase productivity and in turn decrease biofuel cost per gallon.

“We are only just beginning to understand that the pond microbiome is not only an indicator of health but also a tool for crop protection,” said Rhona Stuart, one of the team members from LLNL.

The goal of the project is to identify and employ “probiotic” bacteria to increase microalgal survival by two-fold when under attack by rotifers or chytrids in mass algal cultures.

Rotifers and chytrids are common culprits of algae grazing. By using probiotic bacteria to increase algal resistance against these grazers, the team estimates at minimum a 5 percent to 10 percent increase in annual productivity. The proposed tool has several advantages over the baseline, including minimal risk of pest evolution, tailored microbiome diversity to increase ecosystem resilience and productivity, and probiotics that can increase algal productivity and outgrow pests.

The lab says this work will help overcome the barrier that exists in translating laboratory success to open pond success.

USDA Accepting Applications for Biobased Products

Following a webinar this morning, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack announced they are accepting applications for funding under the Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical, and Biobased Product Manufacturing Assistance Program. It was formerly known as the Biorefinery Assistance Program. The webinar discussed changes to the program as well as opportunities available to produce more biobased products.

USDA logo“This critical financing will enhance our efforts to build a robust, rural bioeconomy by helping to expand the availability of biobased products and to increase the number of commercial-scale biorefineries in the country,” Vilsack said. “In addition to the available funding, I am proud to announce that USDA has significantly improved the biorefinery program to help create lasting job opportunities in rural America.”

There will be two funding cycles. Applications for round one are due October 1, 2015. Applications for the second round are due April 1, 2016. For information on how to apply, see page 38432 of the July 6, 2015 Federal Register.

USDA has made significant improvements to the program. Biorefineries are now able to receive funding to produce more renewable chemicals and other biobased products in addition to advanced biofuels. In addition, biobased product manufacturing facilities are eligible to convert renewable chemicals and other biobased outputs into “end-user” products. Further, USDA has streamlined the application process.

USDA released a report on June 17, 2015 that shows America’s biobased industry is generating substantial economic activity and creating American jobs. According to the report, the U.S. biobased industry contributed four million jobs and nearly $370 billion to the American economy in 2013 alone.

Take a Ride on the Waves with Algae

It’s time to start surfing the waves with algae. One of the hottest technologies during the BioEnergy 2015 conference was the algae surfboard developed by U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funded scientists at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) California Center for Algae Biotechnology.

algae surfboardTraditionally surfboards have petroleum, aka fossil fuels, as a component. However, these algae surboards are made from algal oil, produced by Solazyme (also a San Diego-based company). According to DOE, the algal oil is converted to polyols by UCSD chemists and then sent to surboard manufacturer Arctic Foam. Once here, the company shapes the foam boards and then coats them with fiberglass and a renewable plant-based resin.

Does it work? DOE said early surfer reviews have given the prototype a “perfect ten”. The “surfboard of the future” is a bit more flexible than traditional surfboard and this appeals to many surfers.

The team of scientists along with Solazyme and Artic Foam are planning to continue their work and the hope is that polysols will eventually be able to replace components of not only surfboards, but other products that require similar petroluem-based chemicals.

View the 2015 BioEnergy 2015 photo album. 

DOE Invest $18M in Algae

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded $18 million to six projects aimed at reducing the costs of algae-based biofuels to less than $5.00 per gallon equivalent by 2019.

The funds are being used to help meet the DOE’s goal of $3 per gallon for advanced algal biofuels by 2030. These biofuels can be used as replacements for petroleum-based diesel and jet fuels as well as products derived from algae can be used as petroleum replacements for products such as chemicals, beauty products, plastics and more. In the near future, algae-based technologies can achieve higher yields of oils. However,  to achieve the goals set forth by the DOE, barriers that still remain in place such as efficient cultivation, harvesting and conversion to bioproducts must be deconstructed.

The projects selected include:

  • Producing Algae and Co-Products for Energy (PACE), Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO – Colorado School of Mines, in collaboration with Los Alamos National Laboratory, Reliance Industries Ltd., and others, will receive up to $9 million to enhance overall algal biofuels sustainability by maximizing carbon dioxide, nutrient, and water recovery and recycling, as well as bio-power co-generation.
  • Marine Algae Industrialization Consortium (MAGIC), Duke University, Durham, NC – Duke University will receive up to $5.2 million to lead a consortium including University of Hawaii, Cornell University, Cellana and others to produce protein-based human and poultry nutritional products along with hydrotreated algal oil extract.
  • Global Algae Innovations, Inc., El Cajon, CA – Global Algae Innovations will receive up to $1 million to increase algal biomass yield by deploying an innovative system to absorb carbon dioxide from the flue gas of a nearby power plant.
  • Arizona State University, Mesa, AZ – Arizona State University will receive up to $1 million for atmospheric carbon dioxide capture, enrichment, and delivery to increase biomass productivity.
  • University of California, San Diego, San Diego, CA – The University of California, San Diego will receive up to $760,000 to develop an automated  early detection system that can identify and characterize infestation or infection of an algae production pond in order to ensure crop health.
  • Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, CA – Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will receive up to $1 million to protect algal crops by developing “probiotic” bacteria to combat pond infestation and increase ecosystem functioning and resilience.