Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Marine Sciences Laboratory are turning algae inside out to find the best biofuel possible.
Michael Huesemann, a lead researcher, said algae is a promising clean energy, but it is expensive to harness effectively.
“The price of biofuel is largely tied to growth rates,” he said. “Our method could help developers find the most productive algae strains more quickly and efficiently.”
Huesemann, who has worked with algae for 16 years, started on the $6 million, three-year Development of Integrated Screening, Cultivar Optimization and Validation Research project in October with a small team of senior and junior scientists in Sequim.
“What we’re really interested in are carbon-neutral biofuels that can be grown in the United States,” he said.
“We haven’t found any algae that grows fast enough or provides enough biofuel, so we’re trying to find microalgae that grows fast to make biofuels.”
Huesemann said there are millions of strains in nature to sort through, so rather than a “shotgun approach and randomly screening” they are “doing an organized, rational screening.”
Finding the best algae is broken into a process of five tiers, with the lab in Sequim working in partnership with Arizona State University’s Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation, and three Department of Energy labs: Los Alamos National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.
In Tier I, scientists in Sequim and New Mexico test up to 30 different algae strains to see how weather-tolerant they are. The top third of strains will move on to Tier II, Huesemann said.
In Tier II, Sequim’s Laboratory Environmental Algae Pond Simulator will use glass cylinder photobioreactors to test the algae strains in climate conditions found around the world.
Researchers tried to evaluate algae in test tubes but found lab results don’t always mirror outdoor ponds, laboratory officials said.
Two other labs will evaluate the algae for commercially valuable compounds. Compounds like phycocyanin, which is used as a food dye, could make algae biofuel production more cost-effective, Huesemann said.
Scientists also will research how resilient certain algae strains are when faced with competing algae and predators, like protozoans.
Huesemann anticipates that Tier I and II will be conducted this year.
In Tier III, he said, researchers in New Mexico will further test top-performing algae strains, “forcing cells to grow faster or generate more oils, using state-of-the-art laboratory techniques such as directed evolution and fluorescence-assisted cell sorting.”
Afterward, as part of Tier IV, strains will be moved to outdoor ponds in Arizona so researchers can compare biomass output with earlier steps. In the final step, Tier V, scientists will study the best-performing algae strains in different lighting and temperature conditions.
Data will go into the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories’ Biomass Assessment Tool to help researchers map the expected biomass productivity of each algae species in outdoor ponds “all over the U.S. in different seasons on any day of the year,” Huesemann said.
Once the study is complete, research will be made public for companies and other researchers.
Laboratory officials said this project could jump-start work such as converting harvested algae into biofuels, examining operational changes such as crop rotation to increase biomass growth, and assessing the technical feasibility and costs of making biofuel from algae.