The US Department of Energy has set its sights on innovative technologies to bring the cost of algae biofuel down below $5-per-gallon equivalent in gasoline by 2019. If that doesn’t seem very ambitious compare that to the state of play without innovation, which comes out to $8 per gallon. Also consider that the ultimate goal is to push the cost of algae biofuel down to a $3-per-gallon equivalent by 2030, so yes, the Energy Department is counting on a lot of innovation.
Part of the plan is to promote the development of multipurpose facilities that produce algae based nutraceuticals and other high-value products. That would partly offset the cost of algae biofuel, pushing down prices farther — and faster.
You can also offset costs by combining algae biofuel production with other value-added systems, such as the algae farm and wastewater treatment combo we profiled last spring (scooping the New York Times, btw).
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the latest round of Department of Energy funding for advanced algae biofuel projection, which weighs in at a hefty max of $25 million.
Big Bucks For Algae Biofuel
Let’s skip the group hug this time and cut straight to the mustard. The Energy Department gets its authority to spend taxpayer dollars on promoting domestic algae biofuel production from Section 932 (c) of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was enacted under the Bush Administration (that was before the Democrats won a majority in Congress during the second term, for those of you keeping score at home).
Activity under that law was dormant through the Bush Administration but it kicked into high gear in 2009 with the aim of reducing dependency on imported oil while promoting job creation in the US.
The funding comes under the Algae Program of BETO, the Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office. Since this is not the first round of such funding BETO already has a track record to brag about:
Algae Program research and development (R&D) supported by prior BETO Funding Opportunity Announcements has demonstrated that biofuels and bioproducts produced from algal feedstocks will be a technically feasible alternative to petroleum-based diesel and jet fuels, as well as fuel alcohols (e.g. ethanol) and a range of commodity and specialty chemicals, animal- and fish-feeds, and polymers (i.e., bioproducts).
Based on this success, the latest round of algae biofuel funding focuses on resolving two main barriers to algae biofuel commercialization.
Topic Area 1 is the big one. It will consist of grants of from $5 million to $10 million for anybody who can come up with strains of algae that produce other high-value products as well as biofuel, increasing the total value of the algae biomass.
The Energy Department anticipates a maximum of only three awards in this are, so if you have any big ideas you better polish up your proposal.
For Top Area 2, the Energy Department is looking at awards of up to $1 million going to a maximum of seven proposals focusing on ways to boost algae biomass productivity over and above the innate capability of a particular strain.
They are particularly interested in systems for crop protection, and in systems that boost production while capturing carbon dioxide.
Big Value From Little Algae
Topic Area 1 is already at play in commercial algae farming, one example being an Arizona algae biofuel and multi-product operation undertaken by the company Heliae in partnership with the Israeli company TransBiodiesel.
Not to drop names but last year we happened to be sitting next to TransBiodiesel CEO and founder Dr. Sobhi Basheer at dinner, and he explained that his company’s third-generation enzyme catalysts will come into play for nutraceutical production at the facility.
Taking a closer look at that algae biofuel funding opportunity, the Energy Department is expecting to recruit up to three consortia that can combine various fields of expertise to create integrated system efficiencies from algae farming through harvesting, pre-processing, and refining.
If you’re thinking about submitting an application in Area 1 you better not forget the algae biofuel in favor of nutraceuticals and other fancy stuff. BETO has it right there in boldface:
A critical component of this topic area is that bioproducts are expected to increase the overall value of the algal biomass and still allow for biofuel production.
The Algae Biofuel Farm Of The Future
Another protective strategy that boosts production is illustrated by the company OriginOil, which uses a system of lenses to pump up production in open-air algae ponds.
All of this, btw, is going to make our friends at the US Navy very happy, so stay tuned.
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