by David Schwartz


NAABB summary: $2.86/gal algal biofuel now possible*

J dropcaposé Olivares is a busy man. Not only the founder and kingpin of the NAABB 3-year DOE-backed consortium to ring out the potential of algal biofuel production, he also recently served as conference co-chair, along with Dr. Richard Sayre, for their third annual international conference in Toronto, Canada. This all fits on top of his regular job as Division Leader for the Bioscience Division at Los Alamos National Labs. And not to forget, he and Dr. Sayre are the chief editors (with Rene Wijffels) of Elsevier’s Algal Research technical journal. How he finds time to ride his mountain bike and play with his grandkids is a mystery. Must be an insomniac.

We spoke to José recently to find out about the Toronto conference, as well as get his take on the conclusions drawn from the just finished NAABB Consortium adventure – the largest algal research program to date.

José Olivares

José Olivares

So how was the conference? “We had a great conference in Toronto,” he says. “We had received about 425 abstracts, from which we selected 86 oral presentations, and 210 poster presentations. We also had 15 invited speakers from around the world. The 385 attendees came from 40 countries.

“We also had five plenary talks, which were quite enlightening in many ways. We had Dan Fishman, from the Department of Energy, Bioenergy Technology Office, give an overview of their algal biomass and biofuel program. He pointed out that there was a decrease in spending from the big bubble that came out of the stimulus funding in 2009 and 2010, but that decrease has stabilized and the program is now very healthy and going forward very well. The main thing he wanted to point out was their movement toward investment in best-bet capabilities, like the ATP3 program at Arizona State University, and also investment in research and management of natural resources. Their next investment is going to be in algal productivity and cultivation, and the winners of that program funding have not yet been announced.

“Roman Szumski, Vice President for Life Sciences at the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada, announced the partnership between Pond Biofuels and NRC to build a carbon conversion demonstration facility at the Canadian Natural Resources, Ltd. oil sands operation in Alberta. This is essentially to sequester CO2 from the oil sands productions into algal biomass and into alternative energy through a number of processes. It’s about a 19 million dollar project.

“On a more technical side, Dick (Dr. Richard) Sayre, from Los Alamos, discussed his work in successfully converting algal species for high biomass productivity – up to five times higher productivity than wild type – by increasing light utilization.

“The most successful speaker in the conference, I would say, was our invited speaker, Emilie Slaby, from the Scoular Company, in Minneapolis. She made a compelling case for the algal community to look at the protein market for pet and animal feed. She also warned that the margin associated with the delivery of protein products into this market needs to be well understood for companies moving this direction.”

Let’s talk about the conclusions from the three-year $50+ million DOE-backed NAABB research project. What are some of the major accomplishments from the work, now that the consortium has come to the end of the project funding?

From all of the information that has been generated from NAABB, we have already over 65 technical publications in the peer reviewed scientific literature, including five PhD theses from some of the academic institutions that were associated with NAABB.

There will be a long legacy because a couple of things have been generated out of the NAABB effort: one is a new technical journal called Algal Research that’s being published by Elsevier, and second is an international conference held every year – the International Conference on Algal Biomass, Biofuels and Bioproducts. (This coming year it will be held in New Mexico, either Albuquerque or Santa Fe, in June, 2014.)

In the technical realm we have deposited 30 of our most productive strains that we’ve developed through our prospecting efforts. Those strains are now in the UTEX Culture Collection and available to other investigators for utilization.

One of the Consortium’s early victories involved their algal biodiesel meeting American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) specifications

One of the Consortium’s early victories involved their algal biodiesel meeting American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) specifications

Along with our technical accomplishments, there were 33 intellectual property disclosures produced by Consortium members in all of our areas of work. Some of those are in the process of being licensed or commercialized. One of those is the company Phenometrics, They produce a small photobioreactor for the algal bioresearch community, which mimics the pond environment so that multiplex type experiments can be carried out easily in the laboratory.

The consortium research project targeted six steps in the process of creating biofuels from algae. What were the main accomplishments in each?

In Algal Biology, our impact has been primarily in new and improved strains, isolated, and deposited into the UTEX Collection. For example, we’ve found a particular set of strains that have very large productivity, or show very large promise for high productivity in the field. One of them, the Chlorella sorokiniana 1412 strain, has a productivity of over 30 grams per square meter per day in the laboratory, and grows in a robust fashion at temperatures of up to 40 degrees Centigrade.

We’ve also developed a number of transformation and expression tools for genetically modifying algae to have particular traits. That toolbox of components, I think, will be quite useful in the future. By utilizing that toolbox, we’ve actually been able to improve one particular strain, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, so that it has a 5-fold increase in biomass and oil yield in the laboratory. Chlamy is not a production strain, so we don’t anticipate that this is going to be a final product that goes into production, but we’re hoping that by having found the right genes to do this increase in productivity for that strain, we can transform other strains through similar pathways.

What about in the areas of cultivation?

Out of our prospecting and algal biology efforts, we benchmarked five of our strains in outdoor facilities. We put them into cultivation in an outdoor environment, understood their productivity through a period of time, and developed an understanding of how they develop in those environments, as compared to the laboratory. Those strains have been taken through the whole fully-integrated process of not just the cultivation, but actual harvesting and extraction, taking the lipids into fuels, whether diesel or other hydrocarbons, and the lipid-extracted algae into additional fuel components and animal feed products.

The photobioreactor system now being commercialized by Phenometric was valuable in our cultivation research. It allowed us to mimic the environment of an algal pond throughout different temperatures, different nutrient conditions, different sunlight conditions – within a small system that can be multiplexed in the laboratory so that we didn’t have to have, say, 30 ponds in a very large field to do a particular set of experiments. In fact, Los Alamos (National Laboratories) has acquired 24 of these photobioreactors and is utilizing them quite heavily.

An array of Phenometrics pond simulation bioreactors

An array of Phenometrics pond simulation bioreactors

We also developed the ARID raceway pond system with the University of Arizona, which improves tolerance in cultivation during cold weather. It essentially utilizes the earth environment to maintain more constant temperature within the pond system. That seems to be very effective, especially at cold temperatures.

And, we’ve lowered the cost of media in validated cultivation with non-potable waters through some of the studies we’ve developed.

Harvesting and extraction?

In the harvesting and extraction arena, we started with nine technologies and went through a down-selection and chose three technologies to go further into a more focused and higher-level study to take them to field implementation.

We developed a very low energy consumption electrolytic separation process for algae that has a very high throughput for algal flocculation. That work was done at Texas A&M.

A membrane technology that has low fouling, while allowing for a very high throughput filtration of water, came out of Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL). And an ultrasonic harvesting technology was developed here at LANL. It is low in carbon consumption and introduces no chemicals or other variants into the culture that could be disruptive to the downstream processes.

Fuel conversion?

We looked at a number of conversion technologies to take lipids into production of hydrocarbons and biodiesel. From that we were able to assess what the carbon yield for the fuels would be, the cleanup necessary, losses due to contaminants, and what would be needed to meet fuel specs for biodiesel, green diesel or jet fuel.

A number of technologies were developed, especially in cleanup of the lipid feed product, before it went through the catalytic process for conversion to make it a fuel. We also demonstrated the conversion of lipid-extracted algae to methane through a gasification process, as well as ethanol through a fermentation process, and organic acids through a fermentation process.

But most importantly, and probably the largest impact that the NAABB Consortium was able to develop in this technology, was out of Pacific Northwest National Laboratories and a company called Genifuel. Their demonstration of hydrothermal liquefaction, which essentially takes lipid-extracted algae into an oil-like substance through a sub-critical thermal process, showed that this technology has significant yield improvement over any type of extraction process that we’ve tried so far. It’s a very promising technology for downstream conversion, and PNNL is continuing to work on the technology with Genifuel.


From our harvesting process we did a separation primarily through hexane and wet extraction with one of our partners and the lipid-extracted algae (LEA) then went into a number of development activities. One of them was to take that LEA and understand its value as feed for a number of different types of animals, including ruminants, pigs, fish and shrimp.

What we found was that the value of LEA as a feed supplement for ruminants could add up to $160 of value per ton to the process. And this is in direct comparison to soybean meal, which is the normal protein supplement added to cattle feed. In aquaculture that value seems to be much higher, up another $100 a ton added into the process.

At the same time we looked at the utilization of lipid-extracted algae as direct soil amendment, as a fertilizer. We found that this application is of interest, but has a very low value of around $30 a ton.

What about sustainability and the life cycle analysis?

We had a good-sized team working on techno-economic modeling and life cycle analysis of all of our processes. Out of all of that effort, our techno-economic analysis team – centered primarily around New Mexico State University and Texas A&M, working with several others – developed five different scenarios utilizing technologies out of the NAABB Consortium. They took those scenarios into a simulated large algae farm of 4850 hectares (11985 acres) and simulated what economic effects we would see from utilization of those technologies. They simulated our new technologies and processes in place of baseline technologies, which had been modeled by NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratories) and accepted by the National Laboratories and the DOE.

With the baseline technologies, the best scenarios we were showing were around $15-16 a gallon for production cost of algal fuel.

So for our final scenario, we simulated our best hydrothermal liquefaction technology, our best algal production strain with genetic modification, we cut down the capex of the farm by 40%, and cut down the operational cost of the farm by 80%.

By replacing the baseline technologies with these newly developed NAABB technologies, we were able to achieve scenarios that show a reduction in cost to about $2.86 per gallon for the production of fuel. And with all of those components together, the probability of success became fairly high – up to 97%.

*Some of this is futuristic, and yet to be proven, but if we were able to put all these things together into a large farm, it is possible to get to reasonable values for the cost of fuel.