An Algal Dream Team

The U.K.'s Carbon Trust has assembled a 'dream team' to collaborate on algae research and knock down the barriers blocking a commercial algal biofuel industry.
By Lisa Gibson
A team of researchers at the University of Southampton in England is looking for the most cost-effective, low-energy methods for carbon enrichment in algae cultivation. The two most probable sources are pure carbon dioxide from industrial processes such as fermentation, and flue gas from emitters such as power stations, according to Charles Banks, professor of environmental biotechnology at the university. "Next to light, carbon is probably the most limiting factor in restricted algae productivity," he says. "Our part is really to say, ‘well, we accept that light is limiting, let's make sure no other factors are limiting within this system.' And carbon is the first on the list."

The university's project is part of the Carbon Trust's Algae Biofuels Challenge, a two-phase initiative with the first phase, fundamental research and development, focusing on five key areas: isolating strains; maximizing solar conversion efficiency; achieving high oil yield and high productivity; sustaining cultivation in open ponds; and optimizing engineering strategies. These areas were identified as the largest barriers to algal biofuels production by a team of algae experts with decades of research under their belts. Twelve separate project teams are each assigned to one of the five areas, collaborating toward a main goal. Phase one will be followed by phase two, a scale-up of the breakthroughs established in the first phase.

"The project's overall aim is commercialization by 2020," says David Penfold, technology commercialization manager for the Carbon Trust. "These 12 projects actually build up to that aim so it's basically looking at the different attributes needed to get to that end point."

The Team

The Carbon Trust has dubbed its 12 teams from 11 U.K. institutions the "dream team." Unveiled in 2008 and granted £8 million ($12.6 million) for the three years dedicated to phase one, the dream team includes more than 70 algae scientists who together will find a winning formula for the production of 70 billion liters (18.5 billion gallons) of algae biofuel by 2030.

"Ultimately what we're looking at is getting an 80 percent carbon reduction," Penfold says. "In the duration of the project, we're looking to get a productivity of about 20,000 liters of oil per hectare (2.47 acres) per year."

More than 80 applications were reviewed before the 12 projects were chosen for participation in the Algae Biofuels Challenge and on average each team was awarded about £500,000 for their phase one research. "Our focus on phase one has been to develop technologies to reduce the cost of production," explains Ben Graziano, a project leader with Carbon Trust. Graziano emphasizes the collaboration aspect of the challenge and the fact that, while different teams may be assigned to the same key focus area, they'll have different strategies for going about their research. "Although we have these distinct projects, in fact what we've created is a program where the sum is greater than each of the individual parts." Through the contracts of the program, the Carbon Trust has licenses to the individual intellectual properties of the teams' projects, allowing their research to be passed among the teams, each one building from the work of the one before. "This is quite a novel technique and what it allowed us to do in effect was bring on board a large number of universities," Graziano says. Currently, the most expertise in algal biofuel technologies is at universities, as development is in such early stages, he adds.

After the three-year fundamental research and development phase is over, the Carbon Trust plans to build a large pilot facility to demonstrate the findings of the dream team, further refining techniques found optimal by the researchers. "With this particular technology area, it's vitally important that you not only do the research in a lab, but that you demonstrate that you can translate the technologies you've developed to outdoors and demonstrate them on a very, very large scale," Graziano says. No site has been determined for the pilot facility, but one thing is certain: the U.K. is not ideal for such a project, as open ponds for cultivating algae would need temperatures of at least 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). "We're looking at growing them in sea water, so it'd be close to coastal regions and where that sort of water would be available," Penfold says.

The Carbon Trust has access to facilities for algae cultivation in southern Spain, Graziano says, and is working with partners there to build ponds to test the strains the dream team finds. "We believe what we need is some relatively small ponds in a near-optimal location," he says. In those ponds, the researchers will use CO2 from canisters, but building a pond next to an industrial emitter is ideal, he adds. "As we scale up in phase two and we look to build a pilot-scale facility of up to 10 hectares (24 acres) in scale, we will be looking to site the facility next to a source of carbon dioxide," Graziano explains.

The Carbon Trust has experimented with both concentrated sources of carbon and flue gas, and while Graziano says the yield is better with a concentrated source, there are high costs associated with fractioning off the carbon in flue gas. "So that has to be weighed against all the other factors to determine the most economically viable route," he says.

Carbon Source

In general, flue gas is the best carbon source, according to Banks because it couples algae cultivation with carbon capture, although the source will depend on the amount of carbon dioxide in the gas stream. Power stations could be required to capture their carbon dioxide emissions in the near future, likely mandating concentration of the CO2 in flue gas and resulting in a pure carbon source, which would be ideal for algae cultivation. "We've got to watch what happens in terms of the legislative drivers," Banks says. "I think power companies will be a source of CO2."

Banks and fellow University of Southampton researchers saw a correlation between the Algae Biofuels Challenge and their own extensive work with algae in wastewater treatment plants. "It was quite an attractive project for us to become involved in, particularly the opportunity to work with the other groups on this exciting science," he says.

A team at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory is working on key area No. 3, collecting natural algae samples from a diverse array of marine zones and using technology platforms developed at the lab to isolate high-oil strains. "In terms of cell isolation, we've got colleagues who have been working on this for about 20 years," says Daniel White, PML marine natural products chemist and project manager.

White's team is experimenting with static cultures and using gas exchange to provide a carbon dioxide source for the small amount of algae it is growing for its work. The team submitted an application to be a part of the dream team because PML already had extensive experience in algae research. "As an organization, we're interested in marine sources of renewable energy," White says. "We've also got a policy to take an interest or develop marine-based low-carbon technologies so the program that Carbon Trust presented basically fulfilled some of those criteria for us and we thought we had the inherent expertise and skills to add to that."

The Carbon Trust does not anticipate using genetically modified algae strains in the Algae Biofuels Challenge, Graziano says, as natural strains are more than capable of getting the job done. "What we should be doing is looking to nature and isolating strains from nature that have been evolving for millions of years and understanding those strains and trying to improve those strains using classical breeding techniques." He adds that he thinks it's important to bring a "reality check" to current algae research, as algal biofuel technology is so new and at least 10 years away from commercialization.

"It's a very important technology area," Graziano emphasizes. "It will be vital to the future low-carbon economy that we're trying to create. We do have to start now and we believe that the best way to conduct this research is through a highly structured and well-coordinated program of research and development, which is hopefully, through the Algae Biofuels Challenge, what we've been able to create."

Lisa Gibson is a Biomass Magazine associate editor. Reach her at or (701) 738-4952.