A.I.M. Interview: José Olivares

by David Schwartz

Here in New Mexico the forest fires have been burning for nearly a month, scorching over 130,000 acres so far, making this the biggest fire in New Mexico’s recorded history. The threat was so severe that the city of Los Alamos, home to Los Alamos National Labs, was evacuated for several days and the fear of the fire reaching the nuclear research facility had the entire state holding its breath.

Los Alamos National Labs is also the cornerstone for the National Alliance For Advanced Biofuels and Bio-Products (NAABB), the DOE-funded $50 million consortia dedicated to optimizing the end-to-end process of algal biofuels. José Olivares heads up this program and we spoke with him just as he was moving back into his offices and prior to heading off to St. Louis for the 1st International Conference on Algal Biomass, Biofuels and Bioproducts, where many of the NAABB consortia team members will be unveiling and discussing their progress to date.

First off, José, are things returning to normal at Los Alamos?

It’s very smoky here, and at night you can see the fires very clearly in the distance, so it’s still pretty tenuous. They are doing controlled burns around where I live. It’s incredible, and it’s not over yet. I hope the rains come soon!

Well, good luck! Let’s talk about the NAABB. Now that the consortia is about halfway through its cycle and about to do some show-and-tell in St. Louis, can you give us a preview of some of the progress or highlight announcements?

Let me just clarify that the St. Louis conference is not put together by NAABB. We are co-sponsoring it along with a number of other sponsors. The only connection to NAABB is that Dick (Dr. Richard) Sayre and I are chairs of the conference.

The NAABB combined Sustainability and Cultivation team

The NAABB combined Sustainability and Cultivation team meeting at NMSU in June, coordinated by Meghan Starbuck (NMSU) and James Richardson (TAMU—far right in the picture). José is center, right. Photo Jim Oyler (Genifuel)

Is it, though, a showcase in some sense of the work that is being done by NAABB because of your and Dr. Sayre’s involvement?

Yes, very much so. We have 30 oral presentations and over 200 poster presentations, and I would say about forty to fifty of those posters and four oral presentations are from NAABB members. Again, this is not coordinated by NAABB, it’s just something that we encouraged our member to participate in if they wanted to.

As far as the NAABB in general, is the project proceeding according to plan?

It is going very well, and according to plan. We had our first deliverable about two or three months ago, which was to develop a sustainability model that we’ll be using for all of our integration projects in the coming two years. We are in the process now of doing a down-select for harvesting and extraction technologies, and that will probably conclude in the next two to three months. The number of publications coming out of the organization is huge. I think we reported over twenty publications in peer review journals in the last year, and over 120 presentations by our members in national and international meetings.

What part of the end-to-end process for algal biofuels is showing the most progress?

We’ve had a number of breakthroughs in the harvesting and extraction components and you’ll hear a little about that at the St. Louis conference, particularly from Los Alamos and the acoustic focusing technology it’s developing for harvesting. There’s also a new technology coming out of Texas A&M using electro-coagulation that looks extremely promising.

From the conversion side we’ve already highlighted a number of breakthroughs in getting some of the lipids that the consortium has been able to produce into different types of fuels for characterization, and that’s going very well.

In algal biology we are working very hard on sequencing and annotating three different genomes of algae. That’s great progress because genomic sequencing of algae for biofuels production has been lagging over the past few years. Once we have those annotated and properly analyzed, they will be published. We’re hoping that will produce a new wave of research in engineering metabolic processes with the algae.

Visiting the new Solix Biosystems

The Sustainability and Cultivation team visiting the new Solix Biosystems photobioreactor at NMSU, a major test bed facility for NAABB. Photo Jim Oyler (Genifuel)

Within our sustainability team Eldorado Biofuels has started a facility in Jal, New Mexico, using produced waters. Los Alamos has been supporting them very heavily in the characterization of those produced waters and their cleanup prior to utilization for algal growth. That’s been a major highlight that’s come out from the consortium in the past month or so.

You said that you are sequencing three strains of algae. Is the plan to stay with multiple strains or to eventually narrow it down to one most productive strain?

We have two main production strains that we are working with, Chlorella protothecoides and Nannochloropsis salina 1776. We are also working with Chlamydomonas reinhardtii as a research molecular tool development strain. And we are currently placing about 4 strains that we have screened from over 400 natural samples in the U.S. into our outside cultivation pipeline to determine their robustness and productivity. Whichever ones seem to survive the best in the outside cultivation screening will probably go through full genomic sequencing and analysis.

Have there been any spinoff technologies developed within the consortium that are resulting in other applications or co-products?

No co-products yet, but at Michigan State University, Dave Kramer’s lab has developed a small photobioreactor system, an array system, to be utilized in biological laboratories to mimic outside conditions such that you can do multiple experiments in the lab on algae cultures with fairly reproducible conditions. The system was just licensed out to Phenometrics. So that’s a recent spinout of work that’s been done by NAABB members.

In the end-to-end process, what do you see as the toughest challenges?

We’re still trying to learn how to metabolically engineer or modify our main strains of algae such that we can make them more robust towards predation and environmental conditions, so they can grow much more steadily and with much more stability. Our algal biology area, the area where we are making our largest funding investment, remains the biggest challenge for NAABB, and for the whole industry in my opinion.

Solix photobioreactor platform

Pete Lammers (NMSU) explaining the control systems of the Solix photobioreactor platform. Photo Jim Oyler (Genifuel)

For those going to St. Louis, what do you want to make sure that they see or hear?

We have three major plenary lectures planned—our keynote speakers. One is Dick Sayre, who will give an overall progress report in algal biology—not just within NAABB, but also from the two energy frontier research centers that he is a collaborator in, PARC (Photo Antenna Research Center) and CABS (Center for Advanced Biofuels Systems).

The second one which we’re very excited about is Nathan Danielson, Program Manager in Dupont’s Industrial Biosciences division, who will talk about the progress and challenges in the development of bioplastics, and how the algae community can start thinking of developing co-products in the bioplastics arena—a good area for us to be thinking about as we make progress toward algae co-products.

And then Valerie Sarisky-Reed, from DOE, is going to give an overview of the DOE program—what new things are happening, how progress has occurred across the community, particular in algae, but also in the overall biomass arena, and what we can be looking for in the next couple of years as far as the government funding picture is concerned.

We’re also very happy to have a number of international speakers coming in to provide highlights of the work that’s been going on internationally. Two that we are especially excited about are Makoto Watanabe, from the University of Tsukuba, in Japan, who has been developing really nice systems using several algae species, and Mario Tredici, from the Università degli Studi di Firenze, in Italy.

Is NAABB looking for any additional inputs, resources or expertise at this point?

Yes. We just added a new partner to the consortium in the past couple of weeks—Phycal. They are bringing in a number of molecular tools they’ve developed in their work with Chlorella protothecoides. And we’re in the process now of adding one more partner who I can’t reveal until the whole process is done. We’re always looking for new expertise and partners that can contribute significantly to the mission and the goals of NAABB.