ASU’s Dr. Qiang Hu

by David Schwartz

When a guy like Mark Edwards says, “He is the smartest guy I know,” I have to pay attention. “Who is the smartest guy you know?” I ask him. “Yes,” he says. “Hu is the smartest guy I know.”

So we drive over to the Arizona State University Algae Farm, at the Polytechnic campus located in Mesa, AZ, and drop in on Dr. Qiang Hu at his Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology, otherwise known as LARB, to get a view of this university research center that has taken algae research and cultivation to new heights.

His work was recognized in Time Magazine under the title “Green Crude” and listed as one of the “50 Best Inventions of 2008”. He received the 2007 Innovator of the Year Award from Arizona Technology Enterprises, was recognized with the Innovator of the Year-Academia Award at the 2009 Governor’s Celebration of Innovation, and was the recipient of the 2010 Award for Research Excellence from the Arizona BioIndustry Association.

Dr. Hu received a Bachelors of Science in Biology from Hubei University and a Masters of Science in Hydrobiology from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in China, and a Ph.D. degree in Microalgal Biotechnology from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.

He orchestrates a powerful team, including such notables as Milt Sommerfeld, not to mention the master algae educator himself, Mark Edwards. Hu’s lab, and staff of more than 40 including mostly PhD’s, technicians, undergrad and grad students, participate on many projects relating to algae research and development, and have evolved many powerful partnerships that team their lab savvy with government agencies, other research labs and rapidly evolving algae biofuel companies.

Dr. Hu was gracious with his time and gave us an unforgettable tour of one of the most elaborate, well constructed, and advanced algae research and production facilities at any university in the world. We talked about how this developed, and the upside of research grants.

How did you get involved in algal research?

I got into the field 25 years ago when I did my master’s research in the Institute of Hydrobiology at Chinese Academy of Sciences. At that time, the project was to mass culture microalgae for animal feed. We did three years of research selecting suitable candidate algal strains that produced high proteins. We grew them in a photobioreactor, and studied how the environmental conditions affect growth, productivity and the biochemical composition. The goal was to find the strain that could produce the highest amount of protein.

After my master’s degree, I went to Israel to continue my study of photobioreactors in algal mass culture. I worked with Amos Richmond at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who wrote the book Handbook of Microalgal Culture, in 1986. I had written him after reading his book and asked him if I could come there and study under him for my PhD. He wrote a welcome letter and indicated that he was able to cover my plane ticket and provide a scholarship.  So I went there.

The first year I worked on the open pond, and then I studied the closed tubular photobioreactor. Then after two years, I changed my mind because I saw some limitations and drawbacks on the tubular design. So I designed a flat panel reactor. Since then I’ve stayed with that concept.

Was the flat panel reactor design unique at the time you designed yours?

It was quite unique at that time, though some other people had designs using plastic with many baffles between the culture compartments/chambers.  I came up with a concept of using thin flat panels made of glass to grow algae. Now we are using rigid acrylic or flexible plastics.

I spent five years in Israel working on mass culture in bioreactors, and then went to Japan for postdoc work at the Marine Biotechnology Institute for two and a half years. I worked on a number of projects, one being carbon capture by algae. The concept was to use algae as a biocatalyst to fix carbon dioxide from power plants and convert it to algal biomass and then to fuel.

That was back in the Nineties, and it was a ten-year project that I joined in its last two years. I was pleased that my thin flat plate photobioreactor design and performance became part of their final report. It was a successful pilot-scale project, but it was not implemented before the project ended.

What brought you to Arizona State University?

After Japan I came to ASU to continue on algae-based carbon capture and wastewater bioremediation. We were using algae as a potential solution for treatment of the waste streams. In the first couple years we had a project sponsored by Arizona Public Service, a local utility company, to advance the concept of using algae to sequester CO2 from power plants. We also got funding from Salt River Project, another local utility company, to use algae to remove the high nitrates from some of the water they managed and convert it to clean water quality.

So those projects brought me to ASU, along with funding from USDA, EPA and USGS, and our local Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). We did the work through the ASU’s Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology (LARB) where we also trained students and provided outreach activities. Most of those projects were related to algae-based bioremediation.

Our work then expanded to strain selection and cultivation at a pilot-scale level. Some of those projects, like the one with the USDA, used algae to remove nutrients from diary wastewater. The ADEQ project was to use algae to remove nutrients from agricultural runoff. We did that project on an Indian reservation, helping farmers to return better quality wastewater to their drainage canal.

You were looking at the multiple talents of algae from some of your earliest work. What were you looking at as co-products by the time you got to ASU?

As we did those projects I just mentioned, one of the questions always became what to do with the biomass that came as a leftover or by-product? At that time very few people were thinking about algae-based biofuels, they were more thinking about ethanol from corn and biodiesel of soybean, as far as biofuels were concerned. But we were looking at how algae can remove wastes, and at the same time create oil. A wonderful side benefit! So we began screening algal strains that not only could thrive in the waste stream, but could produce high lipid content. We made some patents and published some papers and reports on this.

How did you transition in to working as the research side to several entrepreneurial algal businesses?

When people started to talk more about high-energy density fuels, like biodiesel, we were already developing the strains and further advancing the technologies. We started getting approached by industry for collaborations to help them to develop their technologies.

In 2007 and 2008 we got involved in two Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) projects. Each was led by a company to look into plant/algae-based military jet fuel. We provided biological support to them, screened algae to select good candidates, and then figured out the parameters and cultivation protocols to optimize the algal cultivation process, and produced crude algal oils.

dr. huWhat kind of research are you currently working on?

We recently started work on a $6 million DOE Office of Biomass Programs algal-based biofuel project, with a consortium called the Sustainable Algal Biofuel Consortium (SABC). Our two major partners on this are NREL and Sandia National Lab. This time it is to use a biochemical means for oil extraction and fuel conversion—no mechanical press, solvents, or supercritical CO2 extraction—just a biochemical process via enzymatic reactions, to convert algal biomass, crude algae oil, and biomass residuals, to fuels, such as biodiesel and ethanol, and fuel intermediates, such as fatty acids and fermentable sugars.

It’s a two-year grant, and the main goal is to develop a biochemical conversion process, using commercially available enzymes, and/or algae-specific enzymes, which can disrupt the cells and hydrolyze cell components. For instance, some enzymes, like certain proteases, can degrade glycoprotein-rich cell walls, which are common in many green algae, but not in higher plants. The enzymatic disruption of algal cell walls would allow other classes of enzymes such as lipase, cellulase and amylase to work simultaneously or sequentially to hydrolyze and convert lipids and carbohydrates into fuels and fuel intermediates.

Sounds like you prefer this approach to other forms of extraction?

Well, at this moment, there is simply no single industrial process that is cost-effective and energy-efficient for converting algal biomass into biofuels. The biochemical conversion is one of the promising options that should be explored and exploited. Biochemical conversion is not a new concept, but has been explored extensively in the lignocellulosic biomass to ethanol process for several decades. Presumably the biochemical conversion of algal biomass may be easier than that of lignocellulosic feedstocks due to simpler biochemical composition and structure of algal cells.

We believe the biochemical conversion approach has great advantages relative to the conventional chemical conversion processes in many aspects. Biochemical processing of wet whole algae has the potential to eliminate costly drying and extraction steps. Application of multiple enzyme cocktails to whole algae enables simultaneous or sequential production of potentially cleaner lipid-based and fermentable sugar-based fuel intermediates, which can be fractionated for further refining. The biochemical conversion process takes place under mild reaction conditions that may minimize the formation of degradation/side-products and thus preserves other potentially valuable co-products (e.g., proteins, polysaccharides, omega-3 oils, and carotenoids).

What is your larger goal in all of your research?

There are many technical challenges, which of course are the opportunities. If you took the entire algae value chain, starting from strain development, algal cultivation systems and processes…and your downstream processes, such as harvesting and dewatering, followed by extraction, conversion, product formation—there are challenges at every single step. But at this stage, the issues are not all equally important, so we have to identify what are the rate-limiting steps and roadblocks.

The problems are everywhere but, to me, among all of those technical challenges, the single most important challenge is how you produce large quantities of feedstock—algal biomass—in an economically viable way. So cultivation to me is most important, because without getting a large quantity of biomass you can’t get very far in doing the real work in any downstream processes.