by David Schwartz
Training a workforce for the algae production industry is going to be a Catch 22 type of situation. It will take a large community of workers with highly developed skills to build the quantity of algal product to fill the eventual pipelines. And, at the same time, it takes some further degree of maturity within the industry to know what skills need to be taught to this work force. Despite this quandary, several educational institutions have taken the initiative to put forward courses of study and equip lab and field facilities to begin the process of training for the inevitable jobs when the industry scales up to commercial levels.
Among these trainers, Lone Star Community College’s head of Biotechnology, Dr. Danny Kainer, is leading the charge in Houston, with the National Algae Association’s blessing. A lifelong Texan, Danny took an indirect path to heading up the algae initiative at Lone Star Community College, in North Houston. “I was a philosophy and psychology major at the University of Houston,” he says, “but I had my eye on science all along. So I decided to pursue my graduate studies in microbiology and got my masters at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and then I got my PhD in cell biology across the street at the Texas Tech medical school. Getting involved in algae education was a fairly recent development.”
With the teaching bug in his head, Danny was recruited by Lone Star—a five-campus community college with upwards of 62,000 students. “I came to the Montgomery campus and saw that they had a biotechnology program, and was very impressed with their lab and what they had going on. I had no idea that you could get that kind of training at a community college. And I got hooked,” he says.
Danny started teaching part time at Lone Star in 2003. “I taught as many classes as I could on a part time basis, every biology class and almost every biotechnology class that was offered, and applied for every full time position I could find an opening for. Then two years ago, the person who was directing the biotechnology program asked me to swap places with him, so he could get into teaching and I could run the program for a while. And that new position, as director of the program, is what made the algae work possible.
“It actually started when I was teaching biotechnology and I had the students give presentations on areas they found interesting in biotech. One particularly passionate student gave a presentation on using algae as a fuel. I had heard of it at that time, but hadn’t really thought about it much. But he was so passionate and convincing of how this could potentially change the world one day that it really got me interested. It resonated with me and made me start thinking whether it was something we could get involved with. So I filed it away in the back of my head.
“Then, not too much later, there was another really interesting student,” Danny continues. “He was 15 years old, home-schooled, and he was going to Lone Star to take science and math classes. He had founded a non-profit organization called Inventors Without Borders. It was aimed at trying to get teenagers to utilize their creative juices to come up with inventions to improve the lives of the poorest people around the world.
“He was a very talented inventor himself, and his family was very supportive. He invented something called the Versatile System, which involved algae at the heart of it producing fuel. That got my interest in algae rekindled, so I got to know this guy and his parents, who turned out to be members of the National Algae Association.
“One day they showed up in my office. This was during the time that Barry Cohen, who ran the NAA, was looking for a public home for a big commercial scale photobioreactor. He wanted it, if possible, to be placed in the Woodlands area, north of Houston, where he lives and where NAA is based. They had been going around Lone Star trying to figure out who might be an appropriate person to approach, and they wound up in my office.
“They asked if I’d be interested in helping them find a place for the bioreactor, and were amazed that I actually knew what that was. I thought it was a very intriguing idea, so I approached the appropriate people, got the college’s president involved, and after explaining what this algae stuff was all about we got approval and even some funding from Lone Star to get set up with some basic equipment. The college gave us a site that was dedicated to this project, and that’s basically how we got started.”
Did you continue working closely with NAA to develop the site?
We had another meeting with Barry and he explained more of his vision. With his connections he started arranging donations of plastic, instrumentation, and expertise. Combining that with what Lone Star was able to do on the funding side, we got our project off the ground. Over time we have built it up to where it is now.
You displayed the bioreactor at the April NAA meeting. Quite an impressive piece of equipment for a Community College!
The reason we were able to build it was because Harvel Plastics donated an enormous amount of plastic, all cut and custom fabricated for this project. The prototype was designed by Ed Baker, a member of the National Algae Association, from San Diego. Ed also supervised most of the construction of the unit. Harvel donated enough plastic to build at least two of these PBRs, and we’re still perfecting the first one. I call this the prototype of the prototype. We’re going to have some design changes in the next version based on our experience with this one.
An interesting feature of this PBR is that we are using 12″ diameter tubes. A lot of people say that 12″ is too big, and one of the things I wanted to do is show that wasn’t the case, and certainly for chlorella, at least, it’s going very well in the 12″ tubes. We have five 5′ clear tubes, and then we have a tank that doubles the volume. The total volume of the tank and the tubes combined is about 380 gallons, and it is a single circuit. We have a pump that circulates the algae culture throughout all the tubes and the tank. For this particular PBR we don’t have a way of isolating the individual tubes, but for the next one that’s one of the features we are planning on implementing. We’ll be able to make it a continuous circuit or be able to isolate the tubes individually to do larger scale experiments.
How are you harvesting from the PBR?
We are in the very early stage of doing that and, at the moment, we’re trying out a settling tank, just using gravity to pre-concentrate the algae before we dewater it.
When you do things experimentally, sometimes you stumble onto things you didn’t necessarily expect. We’ve had issues with our power a few times, and lost power to our pumps temporarily. We thought that would be terrible, but what we found when that happened was that we got settling of the algae. And after the PBR has set still for a while — not circulating, not bubbling—the first 500ml or so to come out of the tubes was extremely concentrated due to the settling. The valves we have are at the bottom anyway, so that kind of led us to the settling idea, pre-concentration by just letting it sit. Let gravity do the work. It’s free energy.
Are you developing a degree program around this prototype and your classroom courses?
Right now there is no degree offered because it’s been project oriented. We are the public face of the “Hundred Acre Challenge” that the NAA is involved with, which is an effort to commercialize the algae industry quickly. Barry’s fond of saying, “We’ve been doing research for fifty years; it’s time to commercialize.” His vision is basically to get hundred acre facilities with investors set up. You’ll have photobioreactors scattered across a hundred acres, with harvesters and extractors, and the means to produce large quantities of algae-derived oil.
The role we hope to play at Lone Star, based on the big project that we’ve been working on, is that this will be a public place where a turnkey system is available where you can see a full unit—a 400-gallon PBR with a harvester and an extractor. Barry and other representatives of the NAA can come in and bring potential investors or other interested parties to see what’s possible, and see what a turnkey system looks like.
We are also developing biodiesel processing equipment. So the hope is we will be able to create large quantities of algae, dry it, extract the oil, and turn the oil into biodiesel all in one location. It would be a model for a hundred acre facility.
How about the lab? Are you doing research with different strains?
One of the things that we teach in our biotech program is cell culture, so in our lab we have laminar flow hoods, where you can work under sterile conditions. We have our students use the techniques from cell culture and apply those to algae cultures. We acquired 21 different strains from the University of Texas (UT) culture collection.
We also recently acquired a FlowCAM from Fluid Imaging. Once we got used to how the instrument worked, I had the students do some comparisons in cell density. First they would use a hemocytometer, a cell counting instrument. Instead of the cultured cells that are normally used for hemocytometers, we were counting algae. So we got numbers on what the cell density was the old manual way, and then ran it through the FlowCAM to see if we got similar results. And they were very similar.
We learned how to build libraries. On the FlowCAM the library is a collection of images and you teach the instrument what a normal algal cell looks like, for example what a chlorella looks like. And if there are contaminates, maybe some algal grazers or predators that get contaminated in the culture, then the FlowCAM is pretty good at detecting them. We set up a few cases of intentional contamination. We had a number of different species and we also found to our chagrin that chlorella, which is so robust, was contaminating many of our samples of other cultures. And the FlowCAM was able to indicate that as well.
Most recently we were working with Nile red stain, a lipid-binding florescent stain. The FlowCAM reads the stain with its laser and we were able to quantitate the total lipid content in individual cultures that way. It doesn’t allow you to distinguish the type of lipid, but it allows you to do things like test the total lipid concentration per cell, pre and post nitrogen starvation, for example, or different lipid contents of particular species under similar conditions.
How do you decide which strains to concentrate on?
One of the things we started working on right away is something I called the Adopt a Species Program. We had our students each claim one of the particular algal strains that we had acquired from UT and they basically just worked out the conditions of those. We had a spreadsheet, with students’ names attached to particular species and they looked at different types of media, different lighting conditions, whatever was required. I liked to call it a very miniature version of the UT collection. Of course, instead of 3000, we had about 20 strains.
Tell us more about the curricula for the program.
The curricula we’re working on is in conjunction with what they’re doing over at Santa Fe Community College. They’ve done all the heavy lifting so far. We’re only just beginning to adopt formal curricula. What we’ve been focused on is integrating some of that curricula into our biotech curricula.
All students are required to take an internship. Traditionally our interns have worked outside the college at companies, but we have three part time interns who spend half their time at companies and half their time here working on algae projects. One of those interns who has been really instrumental in some of the things we’ve been doing is spending half of her time at a biodiesel plant and half here. Monday and Tuesday she works on the downstream stuff, and Wednesday through Friday she works on the upstream stuff here with us. She has a birds’ eye view of the entire process.
NAA has put together a certification course, which they’ve offered once, and they’re about to offer it a second time. We have 17 students who actually went through that certification process and we’re sort of using that as a model. We are exploring the possibility right now of bringing that certification to Lone Star on a continuing ed. basis. Basically that certification course has everything from basic biology to practical culture requirements, dewatering, extraction, and there’s some entrepreneurial aspects to it.
These are the early days and placement must be difficult until the industry gets more established. How are you dealing with that?
We are waiting to hear about our first student who is going to get placed. She’s already started her internship with a company that’s done a number of different microbiological projects, mostly with bacteria. They are just moving into the algae side of things. She’s already had microbiology experience, and got her biotechnology degree, and they are very interested in hiring her.
There really aren’t that many jobs yet. But we’re trying to be ahead of the curve. We’re hoping that these startups will find success and will be ready to hire. We are very motivated on the educational and training side to contribute to this industry. We believe in it and we are very dedicated to training our students with appropriate skills so that when those jobs began to appear, they’re going to be ready to hit the ground running Day 1.