Overview of NAABB’s Algal Biofuels Consortium

By José A. Olivares | April 19, 2011

There are a number of technical challenges and social and policy issues that need to be resolved before fossil fuels can be totally replaced. The algal biofuels consortium created by the U.S. DOE is working towards overcoming many of these technical challenges.

The National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts was created in early 2009 through the association of 14 academic institutions, 12 industrial partners and two national laboratories, led by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. NAABB partners believe that in order to make an impact on the algal biofuels industry, three major objectives must be addressed: The development of technologies for cost-effective production of algal biomass and lipid; development of economically viable fuels and coproducts; and provision of framework for a sustainable algal biofuels industry.

In September 2009, NAABB submitted a proposal to the DOE, which developed a holistic research program including discovery, development and demonstration pathways for algal biofuels. In January 2010, DOE Secretary Steven Chu announced NAABB’s award: as a public-private partnership, the NAABB will devote $49 million of federal funds along with about $20 million of cost-share commitments from its partners to the development of these objectives. The NAABB framework for a sustainable algal biofuels industry includes a research program in algal biology, cultivation, harvesting and lipid extraction, conversion into fuels and coproducts, enveloped by a sustainability modeling and analysis program.

Program Highlights

NAABB’s algal biology program focuses on the development of strains of algae that have high biomass and lipid production performance and can be safely deployed. The goal is to increase the overall productivity of algal biomass accumulation and lipid/hydrocarbon content by mining the natural diversity of algal strains, and performing mutagenesis for increased lipid production. Systems biology approaches for lipid production include knowledge gathered through genomics, proteomics, and transcriptomics of developmental and production algal strains. The NAABB crop protection projects involve adaptive evolution and genetic modification of algae to develop desirable traits. This program maximizes yield through nutrient, ionomics, and metabolic regulation. Maximizing lipid production involves deep understanding of the lipid secretory and packaging systems in algae through transcriptomics and manipulation of these organisms through genetic modification. The work also involves maximizing hydrocarbon production of algae through regulation of the terpenoid pathways in algae.

The development of scalable cultivation practices in various environments is part of the NAABB concept. NAABB partners are exploring cultivation in arid, semi-arid, wet, and marine environments. New tools are being developed and used to measure productivities under climate conditions that simulate variations in light, air and pond temperatures for seasonal variations in different regions of the country, and are able to feed this information into robust models. This work will increase overall productivity by optimizing sustainable cultivation and production systems. Furthermore, NAABB is addressing methods for optimization of photobioreactors and open pond cultivation.

It is well accepted that the development of cost-effective, energy-efficient harvesting and lipid extraction technologies will make a major impact to this industry. Therefore, NAABB is investing in the development of harvesting technologies using innovative acoustic focusing, electro- and chemical flocculation systems, and new materials concepts for traditional membranes. New lipid extraction technologies are being worked on that involve innovations in acoustics, mesoporous nanomaterials and amphiphilic solvents.

The development of cost-effective, drop-in transportation fuels from algae is the key goal. NAABB is developing technologies to convert lipids/hydrocarbons and biomass residues into useful fuels. The program involves understanding the physical and chemical properties of algal biofuels and their thermophysical and transport properties. NAABB is developing lipid conversion to fuels via catalytic decarboxylation and deoxygenation, and catalytic and supercritical transesterification. The biomass conversion program involves catalytic gasification, thermochemical gasification and power generation, fast pyrolysis and hydroprocessing, and anaerobic fermentation to organic acids and gasoline products.

The coproduct development program can add profitability and flexibility to the industry, as biofuels markets develop. Developing agricultural coproducts for livestock and mariculture feed includes the production of lipid-extracted micro- and macroalgae (LEA), testing the nutritional content of LEA, live animal and mariculture studies, and the development of processes that will lead to certification of LEA feeds. The program also involves the development of synthetic natural gas production, thermal energy from LEA, and bioplastics from proteins and lipids and feedstocks for the fertilizer industry.
The overall success of the algal biofuels industry is dependent on the development of sustainable practices that are energy efficient, environmentally friendly and economically viable. To do this, NAABB is quantitatively assessing the energy, environment, economic viability and sustainability of algal biofuels processes through economic analysis and models, global analysis, and life-cycle and process analysis. This will lead to appropriate resource management, including carbon dioxide, nutrients, water and land.

Author: José A. Olivares
Executive Director, NAABB
(505) 663-5210