Arizona has just won a $15 million Department of Energy grant to establish the first ever national algae biofuel testbed in the US, which gives it at least temporary bragging rights to the #1 position as it jockeys with other states to establish the kind of algae-friendly cred that will attract new business into its borders.
It’s going to have some stiff competition, though. Texas A&M University’s algae biofuel research program also recently got a huge infusion of federal cash, and a network of regional research centers is growing in Hawaii, California, Ohio and Georgia.
A National Push for Algae Biofuel Research
To be fair, the competition is far more friendly than not. Under the new grant, Arizona and states with existing algae research centers will collaborate with each other and with federal laboratories as well as with private sector partners.
The Arizona testbed will be called ATP3 (for Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership), and will be housed at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation at the Polytechnic campus of Arizona State University.
Just as the name says, it will be supported by a laundry list of public and private partners, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Cellana LLC, Touchstone Research Laboratory, SRS Energy, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Texas at Austin, and Commercial Algae Management.
Also weaving into the algae biofuel picture are the US Navy’s algae biofuel initiative, which has been forging ahead despite opposition from Republican leadership in Congress, NASA algae biofuel research, and the US aviation industry’s biofuel initiatives.
What’s It All About, Algae Biofuel?
If all this activity seems a little Manhattan Project–esque, there’s a good reason for the urgency. With only three percent of the world’s oil reserves, the US could drill its way to China and back without reducing its dependence on foreign supplies. Even aside from global warming issues, domestic fuel diversity is critical for long-term security.
As the recent drought shows, food-based biofuel crops such as corn aren’t going to cut it over the long run, so attention is turning to non-food sources. Algae looks like a winner because it is rich in oil; it can be grown under controlled conditions; it can thrive in different regions of the US; and it won’t necessarily take up any space that could be used to grow food.
Move Over Cacti, Here Comes Algae
The new testbed in Arizona is designed to provide private industry with shared access to a national database for analyzing algae growth and algae biofuel production methods, which will help quicken the pace of research from the lab to fully scaled-up commercial algae farms and biofuel refineries.
Notwithstanding members of Congress who have railed against federal support for algae biofuel, it seems that algae has the potential to become big business, and on that account, it is winning support from legislators at the state level.
Algae could provide a particularly significant economic boost for states like Arizona, which could see its agriculture and energy production sectors grow in one fell swoop.
In Arizona, ASU writer Amelia Huggins notes that state lawmakers recently approved two bills designed to create a friendly opening for private industry. One classifies algae as agriculture, and the other permits algae farming on state trust lands.
Huggins also notes that algae research in the state has “benefitted from the strong support of Arizona Gov. Janice Brewer.”
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.