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Making It Work in the Midwest

A new research and development center in Ohio helps spur the development of a regional algae industry
By Erin Voegele | April 19, 2011

Ohio isn’t the first place that comes to mind when the topic is algae. Traditionally, the Southwest has been the the focal point for algae projects under development, but that is about to change. The Center for Algal Engineering Research and Commercialization under development at the University of Toledo is focusing attention on the potential for algae cultivation in the Midwest.

The center was recently awarded a $3 million grant through the Ohio Third Frontier Wright Projects Program, which funds projects that provide cutting edge research activities within the state. The goal of the Third Frontier program is to support the development of new technologies or projects that ultimately benefit Ohio.

Work on the center, which will be located at the UT’s Scott Park Campus of Energy and Innovation, is already underway. According to Sridhar Viamajala, assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering, the center is scheduled to be up and running in late May or early June.

Ohio University and UT collaborated on the Third Frontier grant application, Viamajala says. “We also had several industrial partners and projects [participate],” he adds. “As a consortium we applied for this grant,” with both private partners and the university providing cost share.

Viamajala stresses that while the project will be housed at his university, it isn’t all about UT. “It’s actually a consortium of several public institutions, as well as private enterprises in the state of Ohio that are involved in the project,” he says, noting that both OU and UT have long, active histories in biofuel research, including work with algae. “We applied for this grant with the intent to be able to develop R&D facilities at both universities, where it would not just be lab-based facilities,” but centers that go beyond lab development and bench-scale work. A primary goal of the center is to help members of industry complete larger-scale studies on algae technologies they are developing.

Many times members of industry have a great concept, but they might not know how to implement their idea and gather preliminary data that is necessary to secure grants and attract venture capital, Viamajala says. The new center will allow these companies an opportunity to collaborate with university researchers to validate their ideas. “It’s a win-win situation for everyone to have a center like this, with infrastructure that can help with algae biofuels research,” he says.

“The primary goal of the center is to provide the R&D infrastructure for the development of algal biofuels and bioproducts,” Viamajala says. The center itself will not only provide private companies with access to university researchers and experts, but will also allow them access to research infrastructure.

Many of the analytical instruments that are required for algae research are already housed at both UT and OU. “We have the core sciences facilities already, with a significant amount of science and research infrastructure available at both universities that are directly related and applicable to algae research,” Viamajala says. “In addition to that, we felt there was a need to actually buy, install and operate equipment that would be directly usable for this type of work, [essentially] trying to take the commercially-viable technologies to a somewhat larger scale than bench- or lab-scale.”

The center will feature both photobioreactors and raceway ponds. While they will not be of commercial scale, Viamajala says they will be large enough to provide meaningful data from a commercialization standpoint. He estimates that the photobioreactors will likely be in the 4 liter to 500 liter range.

The photobioreactors featured at the site will not be designed by UT. Rather, Viamajala says they will be either purchased from vendors or built from published plans. In addition, companies participating in the center are welcome to install their own equipment onsite. “We’ll provide some utilities and hookups, provide some monitoring, and things like that,” Viamajala says.

UT has donated half an acre of outdoor space to the center as part of its cost share agreement. The site will also feature a greenhouse and approximately 3,000 square feet of lab space suitable for algae research. “We can have smaller indoor reactors for lab tests, and also have outdoor reactors, both within the greenhouse and outside,” which will allow for parallel testing activities, Viamajala says.

There are also plans to install downstream processing equipment at the center. “We want to be able to go through the whole process of making fuel,” Viamajala says. “There are several alternative routes to do that. In general, what we are trying to do is buy reactors that may be useful in converting the algae biomass into products, such as biodiesel.” There are also plans to investigate pyrolysis.

According to Viamajala, new startups are welcome to participate in the center, but he stresses that those companies should be aware that UT is not acting as a contract research facility. “Our intent is to work with industry to develop their ideas and our ideas together, so that future technology can be developed,” he says. “Anyone who has an interest who can share some of the costs associated with running their project is welcome to join, as long as they understand that we are not a contract research agency.”

Partnering for Success

Algaeventure Systems Inc. (AVS) and Algisys have already formed a relationship with UT and the center. While many algae companies are focused on the production of fuels, AVS is primarily interested in the production of algae-based plastics, while Algisys is working to produce omega-3 fatty acids, such as EPA.

AVS is a spinoff of a company called Univenture, which was interested in developing algae-based packaging materials. The company has since developed several technologies to aid in algae production and processing. One of the primary difficulties identified by AVS was dewatering. It’s like trying to remove food coloring from water, says David Coho, AVS’ vice president of sales and marketing. “Current technologies use a high-energy centrifuge to separate that, which is very expensive,” he continues. “Our team developed a solid-liquid separation technology” to dewater algae in a less energy intensive fashion. According to Coho, the technology received a merit award from the U.S. DOE’s ARPA-E program.

Since then, AVS has continued to develop technologies related to the growth and biology of algae, as well as the extraction of oils. “The major area we are focusing on is our REC technology, which is a rapid accumulation and concentration technology,” Coho says. The process essentially utilizes a nonchemical, nonmechanical flocculating material to accumulate and concentrate algae.

According to Coho, participation in the UT algae center will allow his company to access pilot-scale extraction and lipid characterization equipment that will help expedite development of AVS’ technologies. The center’s research staff also has expertise in finding high-value products and coproducts that can help support the commercialization of algae technologies. “High-value products and coproducts will help algae startups as we pay our way to stay in the game so we can get to the fuels,” he says.

Coho also notes that the center is proving to be beneficial to UT students. AVS’ relationship with the university has already led to the development of a student internship program that benefits students interested in algae. Our internship program has been highly successful, says Coho, noting that all of AVS’ interns are now employed full-time by the company.

AlgiSys has also begun collaborations with UT. We are really envisioning that UT will be a long-term partner on the R&D side of our business,” said Michael LoPresti, CEO and co-founder of AlgiSys.

According to LoPresti, his company currently intends to enter the commercial space in 12 to 24 months. “We’re an innovative sustainable biotech company that specializes in the production of omega-3 fatty acids for heart health applications and products,” he says. “We are primarily focused on the harvesting of EPA from algae.”

AlgiSys intends to commercialize all aspect of algae cultivation, from growth to harvesting, and oil extraction. UT researchers have an area of focus around oil extraction, says Charles Roe, AlgiSys co-founder and chief technology officer. “Our partnership with [UT and Viamajala] is really a means to cut our costs significantly,” he adds, noting that the vast majority of AlgiSys’ work at the center is expected to focus on oil extraction. The center offers us access to scientific expertise and equipment that will be beneficial to our company, he says.

A Midwest Focus

UT’s algal research center seems uniquely positioned to support the thriving Midwest algae industry. While the region might not be as widely known for its algae industry as the Southwest, Viamajala stresses that there are several factors that make Ohio and other Midwestern states uniquely suited to algae production.

There are several advantages of working in the Midwest, he says. First, and perhaps the most important, is water. The Midwest has ample supplies of water needed to grow algae. The region is also centrally located to most fuel markets and distribution centers, and has a rich history in the manufacturing sector. “With the economic downturn, there are a lot of skilled workers and people who find themselves out of jobs,” Viamajala says. “You wouldn’t necessarily have to train a lot of people. There is already a workforce available that could be employed in this region.” Coho adds that the region also has a strong agricultural background.

We think that northern climates offer a lot of advantages over southern climates for algae production, Hummell says. Algae growth is a natural occurrence in this region, as evidenced by the enormous amount of algae present in our lakes and water systems, he points out.

While Viamajala notes there might be some seasonal limitations for growth, he says they shouldn’t be too severe. We would expect algae production to be less productive during the coldest few months of winter, he says. However, there should be at least 300 days of solid production each year. It’s also important to remember that not all areas of the Midwest have the same weather patterns, he says. Many areas actually have relatively mild winters.

It’s clear that UT’s algae center is providing enormous benefits to local members of the algae industry. “We think that this center is a huge step forward with Ohio becoming a center for algal and clean water research,” Hummell says. “We have commercial companies that are in this space. Now we have the state’s engagement. By Ohio getting this  center, they have really put a stake in the ground to try to keep some of the [university and private] talent here.”

“The algae industry is a very exciting industry to be in,” Roe says. “It’s in its early stages. It almost reminds me of when the internet was first getting off the ground. It took awhile and there were a lot of startup companies, some of which did well, and some of which did not. But, I really do think the algae industry has a very bright future.”

Author: Erin Voegele
Associate Editor, Algae Technology & Business
(701) 540-6986
evoegele@bbiinternational.com

 

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