Researchers aim to reduce cost, time of algae biofuel production

By U.S. Department of Energy | June 13, 2017

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Washington, are working to lower the cost of producing biofuels from algae by utilizing an indoor system that mimics the conditions of outdoor ponds. The project, called the Development of Integrated Screening, Cultivar Optimization, and Validation Research (DISCOVR), is funded by the Bioenergy Technologies Office and has created an integrated screening platform for the rapid discovery of high-productivity strains for resilient, year-round outdoor cultivation via crop rotation. 

Algae holds great potential as a feedstock for biofuels, and under the right conditions, algae could be up to 100 times more productive than cellulosic bioenergy feedstocks. Determining strains of algae that are highly productive could help lower the cost of biofuel production. BETO’s Advanced Algal Systems Program has a goal to demonstrate an algal biofuel intermediate yield of 2,500 gallons per acre per year by 2018 and 5,000 gallons per acre per year by 2022. An additional objective is to reduce the total production costs of microalgae biofuels to $3/gasoline gallon equivalent by 2030, with or without co-products. 

The DISCOVR project, currently in its first phase, utilizes PNNL’s Laboratory Environmental Algae Pond Simulator mini-photobioreactors to cultivate algae indoors, in a controlled environment, while mimicking the frequently shifting water temperatures and lighting conditions that occur in outdoor ponds. The LEAPS system is made up of rows of glass column photobioreactors that mimic small outdoor ponds, allowing researchers to grow different strains of algae simultaneously, while exposing each row to unique temperature and lighting conditions.

Researchers are currently cultivating 30 strains of algae, which they will later narrow down to the four most promising strains. They will study the strains to determine their oil, protein, and carbohydrate content, as well as other factors, such as bacterial resistance and potential for creating valuable co-products. The team will then compare the strains grown in the photobioreactors to two well-studied algae strains, and the top-performing strains will be further tested in the quest to find the optimal algae strain for biofuel production.

DISCOVR is a part of BETO’s Advanced Algal Systems Program, which seeks to increase the yields and lower the costs of algal biofuels by working with partners to develop new technologies and to conduct crosscutting analyses in order to break down critical technical barriers and promote sustainable and affordable algal biofuels. Algal biofuels have the potential to become a reliable, homegrown fuel source to reduce our nation’s reliance on foreign oil.