NREL’s Al Darzins

by David Schwartz

Dr. Al Darzins joined the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL, www.nrel.gov) in the fall of 2005. As a principal group manager he leads the research of the Applied Sciences Group in the National Bioenergy Center (NBC), a multidisciplinary research team responsible for developing and integrating chemical and biological technologies for the conversion of biomass to transportation fuels. NREL, located in Golden, Colorado, is the only national laboratory under the U.S. Department of Energy whose sole mission is renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development.

NREL began operating in 1977 as the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI). Under the Carter administration, it was the recipient of a rather large budget and its activities went beyond research and development. One of its highly acclaimed early on projects was the Aquatic Species Program, the first major government funding for algal biofuels research.

With a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a B.S. in Biology from Northern Illinois University, Dr. Darzins has accumulated more than 20 years of academic and industrial biotechnology experience in the fields of microbiology, molecular biology, microbial genetics, protein expression/engineering, robotics, and screening assay development.

At NREL, Dr. Darzins’ current research includes 1) developing microalgae as a potential feedstock for a variety of biofuels applications, 2) studying the fermentation potential of different pretreated biomass feedstocks, and 3) investigating the expression of “cellulase” enzymes in established fermentation hosts.

We first met Dr. Darzins at the Infoseek Algae World Summit, in San Diego recently, and continued our conversation by phone.

Q. Why did you decide to get involved with algal biofuels in the first place?
A. It all started for me by reading the 1998 Aquatic Species Program Closeout Report. The Aquatic Species Program was a relatively large algal biofuels program funded by DOE at NREL from 1979 until about 1996. And though that program was terminated in 1996 because it wasn’t cost competitive with petroleum oil, as I read through the report I thought, wow, there’s a lot of potential here with regard to generating higher energy density biofuels. Ethanol is an important biofuel in the DOE energy portfolio, but it really only addresses the US gasoline market with is approximately 140 billion gallons per year. Algae oil which can be converted into biodiesel and a variety of other high energy density biofuels, therefore have the potential of displacing some of the 44 billion gallons of on-road diesel that we use here in the United States. It was that potential that really kind of got us interested in testing the waters, so to speak, of restarting NREL’s algal oil to biofuels program.

Al Darzins, manager of NREL’s Applied Sciences Group, loads samples into an automated, high-throughput, liquid handling workstation in the Systems Biology Laboratory. The instrument can be programmed to simultaneously perform thousands of scientific experiments.

Q. And how did you bring that about at NREL?
A. For many years now NREL has been working on developing and testing integrated technologies for producing lignocellulosic ethanol, either by the biochemical conversion of feedstocks – corn cobs, cornstalks, and other dedicated energy crops – to sugars and then fermenting them to ethanol or by using thermochemical means of breaking down many of those same feedstocks including woody biomass by gasification or pyrolysis to produce a variety of fuels from the gas and liquid intermediates.

So, when I got here, that work was already in full swing and is still a major focus of the lab. In 2006, developing higher energy density biofuels other than biodiesel was in its beginning stages. After an encouraging internal strategic analysis of algal oil-derived biofuels and encouragement from NREL management, we started moving forward to expand our research efforts into this new area by actively working to identify new funding opportunities and partnerships.

Q. What do you think are the most important things that came to light from the ASP work?
A. One of them for me was the complexity of algal biology.  Ultimately, the success of this industry is going to rest on how it handles both the biological challenges and the engineering challenges it faces. Both of which are quite significant. I’ve heard a lot of people say that developing algal biofuels is just an engineering issue, that is, all we have to do is engineer more efficient growth ponds and cost effective harvesting and extraction methods, and we have it solved. While these efforts are certainly important, in my estimation, focusing solely on the engineering aspect is the wrong approach. As the industry grows, it will find itself ratcheting up engineering developments alongside those designed to develop a better understanding of the biology.

For example, we really don’t understand the fundamental biological basis for why these organisms do what they do. Why and how do they accumulate these oils or triglycerides, when they’re stressed by either nutrient deprivation or high light, or some of the other stresses? We simply don’t know many of these answers. So one of the things that really drove it home for me was that, while there was a lot of really excellent work done during the Aquatic Species Program on the biology side, we’ve really only begun to scratch the surface. Specifically, we need to understand more of the fundamental biology of these interesting photosynthetic organisms and what happens on a systems biology-wide level, what happens as they accumulate oils.

Another focus of the Aquatic Species Program was cultivating organisms in both small and large open raceway ponds and a lot of really good insights came from that work. But there is still a lot of work to be done to try to reduce the cost associated with growing microalgae in open ponds. Some in the industry are also looking at developing closed photobioreactors for biofuels production, but developing effective closed systems is going to be prohibitive, in my estimation, simply from a cost perspective. So I think a lot more work has to go into trying to improve the efficiency and reduce the cost of operating open raceway ponds with input from the biology side of the house.

Dr. Darzins examines a test sample before putting in an automated, high-throughput, liquid handling workstation in the Systems Biology Laboratory.

Q. There is a lot of concern about how something may work in a lab setting versus how it might translate to a multi-acre setting. What observations do you have about this issue?
A. The industry is starting to move to some scaled up versions of open ponds. I know that some companies are moving to generate open pond cultivation facilities of various sizes ranging from a few acres to tens of acres. I also know, for example, Sapphire Energy is close to breaking ground in New Mexico for a 300-acre facility in the next year or so. So, once we get to that scale, I think that’s going to start highlighting new sets of challenges that will need to be addressed and overcome. Lastly, Solazyme which grows algae heterotrophically in closed fermentors is also looking to scale up its process.

We can do many things on a small scale today and get some very interesting information about the process, but nothing’s going to replace going to a larger scale where issues may be identified that were not realized at a much smaller scale.  For example, algal strains which act predictably at the bench scale in the lab may behave quite differently when they are subjected to the harsh environment of an open pond under full sun light.

So, we’re only really starting to get to that point where the industry is looking at generating larger scale cultivation facilities to evaluate what are the issues associated with providing nutrients on such a large scale — phosphorus, nitrogen, CO2…how do you do that on a very large scale both from a cost and sustainability perspective? Those are the sorts of practical issues that come up once we get to that larger scale.

Working at a small lab scale setting is also not likely to provide the information required to develop effective means to protect the algal biomass crop from contamination by other more robust algal species, protozoan grazers and other potential biological incursions. Only experience gleaned by working at a large scale in a real world setting will give the answers to some of these questions.

Q. So what is the essence of the work being done by NREL on algal biofuels?
A. We reinitiated the algal biofuels program here at NREL about three years ago, mid-2006, and so we’ve really tried to start developing projects that look at the whole algal biofuels value chain, including algal biology,  cultivation, harvesting, dewatering, extraction of the oil, residual biomass use for co-products, and then converting the various intermediates to  fuels.

Because of the Applied Sciences group’s expertise in biology, biochemistry and compositional analysis, it’s not too surprising that most of our current projects are devoted to understanding fundamental biology of algal oil production. For example, NREL has an internal funding mechanism called the Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. The LDRD program, which is very competitive, really looks to fund innovative, yet exploratory research. NREL, I think, has been very strategic in funding many algal-based programs over the last couple of years. I think we currently have about seven of these internally-funded projects that are looking at various aspects of microalgal or cyanobacterial biology as it relates to making biofuels.

In addition to that, we and others have been working very closely with the Department of Energy to help them gather the information they will need to make important funding decisions. Another role we have at NREL is to be the credible advisor with regard to the realistic near and long term expectations for algal biofuels. Frankly, there have been a lot of myths about algal biofuels out there. For example, some claims of algae having higher productivities than are possible from a thermodynamic perspective are simply incorrect. So trying to be that credible advisor has been very important for us in working with a number of government agencies, including DOE, in developing their Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap, or the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) in their algal biojet program or with the EPA in developing a report modeling the techno-economics of algal biofuels. We are also in the process of helping IEA Bioenergy Task 39 to define the current status of the algal biofuels technologies.

We’ve also been working with Chevron for almost the last three years to identify and develop algal strains that can be economically processed into liquid transportation fuels. In addition to Chevron, some of the other major petroleum companies are funding algal biofuels programs such as Shell, Conoco-Phillips, and Exxon Mobil. We are also getting much more involved internationally as well. We have DOE funded collaborative programs with Israel and Canada with some additional collaborations in the works. It’s been rather exciting to see the large number of projects that we’ve developed here over the last few years. Even though most of them are in the algal biology area, we are starting to spread out into developing novel ways of harvesting algal biomass, which is still a huge challenge. And the ability to extract algal oil, cost effectively, is also still critical to develop. So we’ve started some projects in that area as well.

Liquid handling workstation in the Systems Biology Laboratory.

Q. As far as the different areas of algal research: cultivation, harvesting, extraction…there are many areas for drastic improvement to bring cost efficiency. Is there a most critical area that you have found in this research that, if you break the code on this one, everything else will follow?
A. As I’ve mentioned there are many different technical challenges facing the algal biofuels industry. If you ask two people which ones are the most important you’ll probably get three different answers. Again this is just my own opinion, but I feel that extraction is going to be one of the most important ones to solve. How you extract the oils will be absolutely critical. Because there are going to be a lot of companies growing different organisms for these oils, coming up with a generic extraction process, for example, that can use a lot of these different biomass inputs is a big challenge. Diverse microalgae are all quite different in their ultrastructure, morphology, and physiology. So, developing a technology that’s rather generic, cheap and that can tackle each one of these different algal species and effectively pull the oils out of them is going to be, I think, one of the more important areas for research

People are still wondering how many years it’s going to be before algal biofuel is at commercial scale, and I think the time horizon is still rather far off, given all the challenges that we need to solve and all the policy constraints that we may need to satisfy before that actually is realistic. So, we can easily be looking at ten years or more before we’re producing large quantities of algal biofuels. The biomass production infrastructure simply is not in place and must be built from scratch.

Q. How much is genetic engineering playing into the research at NREL?
A. Genetic engineering is playing an important role currently, not only in our research at NREL, but in a lot of algal biofuels research programs around the country and the world. These efforts, for the most part, are designed to try to understand the fundamental underpinnings behind the production of fuel intermediates such as oil and hydrogen. It’s not until you start perturbing the biochemical pathways of these organisms with genetic or metabolic engineering techniques that you start understanding how these organisms are put together, why they do what they do and how to potentially reduce costs through achieving better algal productivities.

Performing genetic engineering in a controlled lab setting is necessary to uncover the biochemical and regulatory details of oil production, but at the same time we also need to be acutely aware of the environmental and regulatory policies that will eventually come into play should a genetically modified organism be used in a large-scale setting. Any company willing to establish large scale algal ponds with a genetically modified microorganism will need to comply with a host of regulatory policies which are only now starting to be considered.

Now, there are different ways of genetically modifying algae. For example, there are ways we can do genome modifications simply by doing classical breeding of algae much like they did with corn to generate better varieties. Since no foreign DNA is involved in generating improved algal strains through breeding, these organisms should really not be classified as being genetically engineered. Regardless of these ongoing strain improvement efforts, some of the first production organisms that you may find growing out there in a larger scale cultivation system will be naturally occurring organisms that one can find in many aquatic environments. It’s not until later down the road, longer term, once environmental impact studies have been completed and appropriate policies installed, that you may start to see the use of genetically modified organisms for oil production.

Dr. Darzins loads samples into an automated, high-throughput, liquid handling workstation in the Systems Biology Laboratory.

Q. How do you see policy being generated, and when?
A. Basic regulatory policy regarding growth of algae in open ponds will begin to evolve and clarify itself as the industry begins to scale up. The industry, nevertheless, must be proactive in addressing sustainability issues on an ongoing basis in order to mitigate any environmental or health impacts. The use of genetically modified algae in open ponds will likely dictate a considerably closer scrutiny regarding the potential for environmental and health related issues. It will be the responsibility of the industry to keep in close contact with the various regulating agencies and policymakers. Those discussions are already starting to take place.

Q. What long-term effect on energy research and policy do you see resulting from the Gulf spill?
A. The first thing that the Gulf oil spill should bring into focus for many is that the era of “easy oil” is over. It’s clear that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to get oil out of the ground. Even though we still have many, many years of oil left, we need to focus on developing biofuels rapidly and at a meaningful scale today, not tomorrow. Biofuels not only have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also starts us down the road of making the U.S. more energy independent. However, these things won’t happen overnight, because research, development and deployment of new technologies takes time and effort. Even though electric vehicle technologies continue to improve, we will still need liquid transportation biofuel alternatives to diesel and gasoline for many years to come.

Q. How does algae rank among the other biofuel feedstocks being worked on at NREL as far as both attention being given to it and the expectations from it?
A. Certainly algal biofuels has experienced, pardon the pun, a “bloom” of interest just over the last couple of years. Many of the national laboratories now have active programs, as does NREL, but we have not lost sight of our commitment to developing and integrating technologies for lignocellulosic ethanol for the DOE. Lignocellulosic-based ethanol is still much more a near-term goal than is algal biofuels. Lignocellulosic-derived ethanol, once commercialized, will go a long way to helping the U.S. meet the new renewable fuels standard of producing 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by the year 2022. Most assume that corn-based ethanol is going to top out at about 15 billion gallons per year. What’s going to make up the remaining 21 billion gallons of biofuels? Well, as I mentioned, it’s going to be cellulosic-based fuels in the near term. But the likelihood is that there will be several solutions that help the U.S. to achieve the 2022 biofuels goal. I like to think that at some point in the future algal feedstocks can start to make a significant contribution to this goal as well as fuels from other feedstocks or technologies currently under development.

Q. Any advice you’d like to put out to the industry to encourage a speedy and healthy development of this industry?
A. Keep expectations firmly rooted in reality. Very early on in this industry there were some rather overly ambitious claims about oil production on a gallon per acre per year basis. We know now that many of those predictions actually violated the first two laws of thermodynamics. Photosynthesis is simply not that efficient. So, keep expectations real. If you don’t do that, then the funding agencies and public will develop overly optimistic and unrealistic expectations about what this technology can deliver and when. Over promising and under delivering is never a good situation to be in.