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US Energy Department bets $18 million on algae biofuel research that could give gasoline a run for the money...and lead to sustainable hydrogen, too.


$18 Million Algae Biofuel Blast From US Energy Department

US Energy Department bets $18 million on algae biofuel research that could give gasoline a run for the money…and lead to sustainable hydrogen, too.

Tesla or no Tesla, the US Department of Energy is determined to stake out a place for liquid fuel in the sustainable personal transport world of the future, and to that end the agency is placing an $18 million bet on six new algae biofuel projects. The ultimate aim is to bring the cost of algae down to a cost of $3 compared to gasoline by 2030. That would certainly vindicate the genius behind GM’s liquid fuel-friendly electric vehicle, the Chevy Volt.

algae biofuel research

Six New Algae Biofuel Projects

The six new algae biofuel projects represent a range of different approaches to bringing down costs.

Duke University will get up to $5.2 million to head up MAGIC, the Marine Algae Industrialization Consortium. The partners, including the University of Hawaii, Cornell University, and Cellana, will develop value-added products such as nutritional compounds for people and poultry.

If Cellana rings a bell, the company first crossed our radar back in 2010 when it was developing algae-based cattle feed. At the time, Shell (as in Royal Dutch Shell) was involved, but apparently it kissed off algae when oil prices began to fall.

Global Algae Innovations, Inc., will get up to $1 million for a project that involves spiking algae yield with carbon dioxide, courtesy of industrial flue gas from a nearby power plant (a variation on that theme is already at work by the company LanzaTech, which uses microbes to produce fuels and other petrochemical equivalents).

The Global Algae project piggybacks carbon capture with algae cultivation, and another new project at Arizona State University will take a similar approach. The school will get up to $1 million to develop a system based on atmospheric carbon dioxide capture.

Two other projects, at the University of California–San Diego and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, will make somewhat less interesting but equally valuable contributions relating to the prevention of disease and unwelcome infestations, for a total of up to $1.76 million.


School Of Mines? How About School Of Algae!

If you were counting along with us, you’ve gotten up to five projects. The sixth one is by far the most interesting.

To the tune of up to $9 million, or half the total pot, the Colorado School of Mines will join with Los Alamos National Laboratory and Reliance Industries, among other partners, in a project called PACE for Producing Algae and Co-Products for Energy.

PACE is a soup-to-nuts endeavor that will address the less-than-sustainable aspect of algae biofuel — namely, water consumption. It will also explore ways to ramp up carbon dioxide and other nutrients, and develop bio-power cogeneration systems.

Just the other day, we were talking about a paradigm for America’s transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, in the form of a massive planned wind farm to be built by an oilfield investor in a once coal-intensive area of Wyoming aptly named Carbon County.

The Colorado School of Mines is another good example. The school is one of the most competitive public institutions in the US, with a long history of excellence in training for the mining and fossil fuel industries. Nevertheless, here is how the school positions itself today (emphasis theirs):

Since its founding in 1874, the translation of the school’s mission into educational programs has been influenced by the needs of society. Those needs are now focused more clearly than ever before. The world faces a crisis in balancing resource availability with environmental protection and Mines and its programs are central to the solution.

The school’s formerly fossil-centric mission was established by state law but in 2013, the Board of Trustees re-interpreted it thusly:

Mines embraces engineering, the sciences, and associated fields related to the discovery and recovery of the Earth’s resources, the conversion of resources to materials and energy, development of advanced processes and products, fundamental knowledge and technologies that support the physical and biological sciences, and the economic, social and environmental systems necessary for a sustainable global society.

As a matter of record, botany was among the very first subjects to be taught when the School of Mines first opened its doors, but that’s not what really interests us.

What really interests us is that ExxonMobil, which appeared to be dropping algae biofuel like a hot potato in 2013, just announced a $1 million funding pot for algae biofuel research at the school this past May.

Okay, so $1 million is chump change to ExxonMobil, but it will go a long way at the School of Mines. The funding will go for two years of research spearheaded by Chemistry and Geochemistry Associate Professor Matthew Posewitz, who already has 13 years of algae biofuel research under his belt at the school.

The School of Mines has also partnered with NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, on the lab’s long-running algae biofuel research.

Onwards & Upwards For Algae Biofuel

Not for nothing, but Posewitz is also exploring the potential of algae to produce sustainable hydrogen, which leads us to my favorite topic of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.

As for GM’s Chevy Volt, when the car launched in 2010, it sported an all-electric drive that could run off of a battery for short hauls, and gasoline for road trips.

2016 Chevy Volt

2016 Chevy Volt.

The car was excoriated by conservative pundits for being electric (or because GM accepted a federal bailout, whatever), and it was also given the stinkeye by EV purists for not being electric enough.

The Chevy Volt still does come with a battery and a gas tank, but if sustainable algae biofuel earns a place in our sparkling green future, it looks like Volt fans will get the last laugh.

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Top Photo Credit: Courtesy of US Department of Energy.

Chevy Volt screenshot: Courtesy of GM.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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