by David Schwartz
National security is at the root of the nearly seventy-year old Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the world’s leading scientific research institutions. While originally organized for a single purpose: to design and build the atomic bomb, this Northern New Mexico advanced science center has played a key role in developing other modern technologies important to our national security, including hydrogen fuel cells, supercomputing, and applied environmental research.
Dr. José Olivares, an analytical chemist and 22-year veteran at LANL, has been managing large programs at the Laboratory for the past ten years. Aside from government-sponsored research, many private organizations approach the Laboratory for their development assistance on a wide variety of projects. “The technology transfer mission is a very nice part of the laboratories,” says Dr. Olivares. “Essentially a company calls the Laboratory and asks to look at technology we have available for licensing, or what capabilities we have to help them in a collaborative research project.”
About three years ago LANL’s Bioscience Division started working on small projects in algae — in New Mexico, with the Center for Excellence in Hazardous Materials Management (CEHMM), and on a DARPA project with General Atomics. These projects largely involved understanding the metabolic processes of microorganisms.
LANL, around that time, also became involved with a large laboratory directed research and development project in understanding the structure of cellulose. Those three projects were the beginning of LANL’s biofuels effort, and eventually led to their participation in the DOE Office of Biomass Program’s Roadmap for Algal Biofuels.
From the Roadmap work, José and his biofuels research associates at the lab realized that a major push was going to come from the DOE for algal biofuel advancement, so they started developing a prospective research partnership with other institutions in the Southwest. That evolved into a national group of 34 institutions, and became the basis for the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bio-products (NAABB) which was officially launched in April, 2010, with Dr. Olivares as its Executive Director.
“Essentially we had a vision within the Laboratory that this could be a large effort here, and that the Laboratory has capabilities to offer that would be significant,” says José. “So we started developing a regional consortium of universities and other laboratories and companies that were interested in partnering. And then last July, when DOE came out with a funding opportunity announcement for an algal biofuels consortia, we essentially led the whole team in writing the proposal. We won it and it was announced in January by Secretary Chu. We started operations for the whole consortium in early April of this year.”
So far the DOE has committed $49 million in federal funds to the NAABB, with an additional $20 million contributed in cost share from the consortium partners. “The distribution of the funding among the partners is a fairly complex formula that originated with the proposal itself,” notes José. “Each partner associated themselves with a particular part of the project and they told us what resources they needed, we negotiated a little bit, and the distribution of funds varies from partner to partner.”
After a tour of their impressively equipped laboratories, situated in the surprisingly spartan environs of the seemingly World War Two era building construction that houses this iconic institution, we continued our conversation.
Q: So what are the overall goals of the NAABB?
A: This is a three-year total program, and the goal is essentially to have technologies that are ready to go for the industry in algal biofuels, ones that our partners can take directly into commercial scale capability. Number two, it is also to develop a feasibility study of the technologies, or components of the technologies, as to their economic viability, their environmental impact, and energy efficiency.
Q: How do you coordinate the work of this large and diverse partnership, and how do you monitor their development?
A: The DOE has a fairly regimented project control process that we follow, so the Department of Energy’s Office of Biomass Programs’ Golden, Colorado office monitors our program. We have monthly reports, quarterly reports, and financial status reports that have to be given on a regular basis. And then we also have, on a weekly to monthly basis, team meetings with our investigators to discuss technical progress as well as direction and strategy.
Q: How do you balance the effort in this group between research and commercialization?
A: We have seventeen universities associated with this consortium, two national labs and fourteen companies, plus one non-profit (Danforth Plant Science Center, our lead institution). Obviously you can see that there is a lot of the research component, but one of the things that DOE required through this funding opportunity announcement, and also the way in which the Office of Biomass Programs directs their research, is that there has to be an industrial component associated with all of the projects.
So, our fourteen companies are really doing the technology pull, and the idea is to be able to take technology from the academic laboratories, and from the national laboratories, and translate it very quickly into our commercial partners’ laboratories and into the test bed capabilities they are developing.
Q: You are in the unique position of having a window view into the labs and engineering departments of leading developers of algae research and production technology. Who do you see developing the promising or most valuable technologies at the moment?
A: Some groups are starting out more advanced than others, but we’re now only two months into the process, so it’s really too soon to start predicting which will be the first successes.
It is important to know, though, that we are working across the whole development chain of algal biofuels. The algal biology area that Cliff Unkefer is helping us lead is one of the areas we are working on at our lab. The cultivation area is another area of research, along with harvesting and concentration, the fuels conversion area, including research for animal feed and other valuable products, and then a sustainability area. All of those are different components that we’re bringing to the picture throughout all 34 organizations.
In Cliff’s area, for example, there are five or six main projects, including a crop protection development project, which will be using genetic engineering to optimize the growth of particular algae while minimizing their ability to leave the pond and grow somewhere else.
There’s also pathway engineering, such as with the Botryococcus braunii strain, to increase some of the chemical intermediates that we’re interested in. We’re not sure we can speed up the growth, for example, but we can take the genes that do well in the isoprene pathway and put them into an organism that already grows faster naturally. Within other organisms we are looking at growth mechanisms. In Nannochloropsis and Chlorella we are looking at both lipid and growth enhancement.
Within the cultivation area we are looking at both open pond and closed photobioreactor systems. Our partners, such as Solix Biofuels, that have a closed photobioreactor system are trying to prove the economic feasibility of that system. We have partners, such as HR BioPetroleum, that are primarily focused on optimizing performance of open pond systems.
We have other research components going on that may affect how things go in one direction or another. For example, out of the University of Arizona they’re developing a new technology called the Arid reactor, which is an open system that also allows for cooling and evaporation control of the pond. The way they’ve designed the fluidics of the pond and the utilization of the water from day to night allows them to control the pond in a different way than in a totally open system. So those kinds of technologies will be brought to bear and will influence at some point the full production system.
In harvesting and extraction we have five different technologies being developed: the acoustic focusing capability that’s being developed here at Los Alamos (2010 R&D 100 Award Winner). We have two commercial partners that are working in that area: Solix Biofuels, which is also working directly with Los Alamos in a separate creative project using acoustic technology, and Kai Bioenergy which has its own acoustic focusing technologies that they are developing.
We have a membrane technology being developed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratories. We also have an electrical conductivity cell for concentration that’s being developed by Texas A&M, and there’s a flocculation component and a nanoparticle technology being worked on by Catalin.
Within the conversion area, we have research going all the way from fermentation, pyrolysis systems, hydrothermal processing, gasification processing, to both supercritical extraction and supercritical conversion into fuels.
Q: How is IP determined in all of these situations? Does it get murky as to who owns what?
A: It could, but we’ve got a very nice intellectual property agreement between all 34 organizations which sets up the principles under which we operate for sharing of intellectual property and information. We have a memorandum of understanding as part of this, a multilateral non-disclosure agreement, and then the intellectual property agreement, which essentially says that all technology invented by a particular institution belongs to that institution.
NAABB does not hold any technology or any IP for the consortium. Secondly, for any IP that is needed for NAABB research purposes, and held by one of our partner institutions, there is a non-commercial research-only license ability between those parties. For any new technology that is developed, there is a thirty-day window in which the developer needs to disclose that technology to the whole consortium, and then there is a sixty-day period from there during which any partner can come in and license that technology for a commercial process.
Most licensing agreements happen pre-patent, because patenting can usually take two to three years. So, all of our partner organizations have a right of first refusal within that 60-day period. After that the developer is allowed to take on that technology and license it out through its normal mechanisms. If more than one partner wants that technology, then a non-exclusive license needs to be negotiated between all of the partners. And those negotiations happen directly between the partners. If a dispute happens on who developed the technology, we have to take it through our board of directors, and then DOE as a neutral arbitrator.
Q: Three years from now, if all goes according to plan and each step of the process has been optimized by the diverse skills and talents represented by this consortium, it sounds like there is a good chance we will be ready for commercial scale algal biofuels. Are you optimistic?
A: Again, the goal for our consortium is to bring all of the technologies that we’re taking on to success. Obviously some will be more successful earlier and some will take a longer time. But we hope that we can bring them all to success at some point or another. Yes, I am very optimistic.
Photos: Rebecca McDonald, LANL Bioscience Division