Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute yesterday announced the successful construction of the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell, which could potentially have numerous applications – including the production of new biofuels, according to Synthetic Genomics (SGI).
Specifically, they are talking about new algae-based biofuels, if the researchers can take the discovery to that next step. They are working on using the same technique they used to create the synthetic bacteria to create synthetic algae, which is also single-celled, but more complex than bacteria. If they are successful, they hope to use them to create biofuels by photosynthesis.
SGI, which was founded by Dr. Venter and is the Institute’s primary backer, has an alliance with Exxon Mobil Research and Engineering (EMRE) group “focused on finding and optimizing (through synthetic genome techniques and other more traditional metabolic engineering techniques) algae to produce biological crude oil replacements efficiently.” The J. Craig Venter Institute has facilities in Rockville, Maryland and San Diego, Calif.; SGI is headquartered in La Jolla, Calif.
Photo credit: Electron micrographs were provided by Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at the University of California at San Diego.
Usually, we talk about using high-tech computer programs to help producers get more biodiesel out of their operations. But this time, it’s the low-tech components that are the platforms for growing a feedstock for the green fuel.
Treehugger.com has this post about how students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have put together an algae bioreactor called the Bio-Grow to cultivate large amounts of algae for biodiesel using old computer parts:
“If someone had one of these in their homes, they would cultivate algae and extract it,” says Megan Kenney, one of the members of the five-person undergraduate team. “Then they could take it into a gas company that was set up with an oil filtration facility and get credit off their gas.”
The Bio-Grow’s various components would include side panels from an Apple G4 CPU tower for the incubating tank, with PVC pipes for structural reinforcement and high density foam for insulation and stability. An old Apple iMac CRT provides the light needed for photosynthesis, while a modified Dell Latitude CPX laptop controls and adjusts the temperature and required light spectrums generated by the iMac CRT. The device also features a water pump to aerate the algae and a faucet that allows user to harvest the algae at any time.
“Algae’s best growth factors are within the red and blue spectrums of light at a ratio of four to one,” Kenney explains. “We also knew that it needed to be 62 to 82 degrees.”
The hope is that people will be able to grow algae as part of a larger system and take that algae to a central collection point. The lipids in the algae would be extracted and sent to a refinery to make biodiesel, while the by-products would go into livestock feed, fertilizer and pharmaceuticals. The Bio-Grow team believes just under 7 percent of American homes would need to have a device to grow enough algae to replace petroleum with algae biodiesel.
Got nice note from our friend, Tamra Fakhoorian with the National Algae Association’s Mid-South Chapter, who just recently completed a workshop in Huntsville, Alabama, entitled, “Algae: Mining Wastewater for Nutrients, Fuel, and Fertilizer.”
She tells us they had a good mix of attendees from all over the country who heard presentations from some of the nation’s leading experts on algae and its impact on the bioenergy field:
In addition, attendees learned of algae’s tremendous potential as a cost-effective bioremediation tool for wastewater streams, effecting a more stable and healthy ecosystem. Two such algae bioremediation systems were well represented by Mark Zivojnovich’s presentation on HydroMentia’s Algal Turf Scrubber and Lucas McConnell of Renewergy unveiling his company’s vertical algae system for nutrient recovery. Open pond scenarios for wastewater nutrient mining were described by Dr. Kimberly Jones of Alganomics and Dr. Aron Stubbins of Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium.
“Our goals for this workshop were to first raise awareness of the algae/wastewater connection for a wide variety of valued end products and using algae for bioremediation. Next, we focused on the many sources of point and non-point sources of wastewater and discussed algal growth system applications. Third, we placed emphasis on why we must address our nation’s finite phosphate supply and how algae is perfectly equipped to reclaim it from wastewater streams,” said workshop coordinator, Tamra Fakhoorian.
Attendees had comments, such as “Great event! Each presenter complimented the other with valuable information. Great question and answer session at end of day to touch on subjects not mentioned by presenters.”
Tamra promises more events and workshops in the future. If you’re interested, just contact Tamra at TamraF.NAA@wk.net
The assumption is that algae-based biofuels are better for the environment. But, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. And researchers are all about proving things.
This article from the Fort Collins (CO) Coloradoan says a pair of mechanical engineering professors from Colorado State are testing to see what gases come from burning algae oil:
“What are the consequences if we were to suddenly go from zero to 20 billion gallons of algae-based biofuel per year over the next 20 years?” [Anthony] Marchese said. “Are there going to be any consequences that we may not have thought about? Recent history is littered with examples of where we’ve moved too quickly with the technology without understanding the risks.”
Marchese and [Azer] Yalin have received a $325,000 National Science Foundation grant to conduct a study of emissions from algae-based biofuels, during which they’ll look at how pollutants are formed when the fuel burns.
The article goes on to say that locally-based Solix Biofuels, which produces biofuel from algae, is anxiously awaiting the results of the testing.
San Francisco-based Solazyme, Inc., a producer of algae-based fuels, has been recognized as the best in the Sustainable Biofuels Technology category at the 2nd Annual Sustainable Biofuels Awards.
This Solazyme press release says the award was handed out in Amsterdam at the World Biofuels Markets conference:
“Solazyme is honored to be nominated among some of the top biofuel technology companies in the world for this award,” said Jonathan Wolfson, CEO, Solazyme. “We are grateful to accept this top spot as our team has worked tirelessly to establish Solazyme’s technology platform as a viable alternative to traditional oil production methods.”
The World Biofuels Market selected a panel of independent judges to evaluate and analyze the nominations for these awards. Taken into consideration were sustainability benefits as measured by GHG savings, environmental impact and further societal benefits from each nomination’s operational or technological advances. Solazyme’s technology shows exponential benefits over petroleum in all of these categories.
In the seven years since its inception, Solayzme produced the world’s first algal-based renewable diesel, the world’s first 100 percent algal-based jet fuel, and road-tested the first algae-derived biodiesel. In addition, the company is supplying the U.S. Department of Defense with 21,500 gallons of fuel for Navy compatibility testing, making Solazyme the largest commercial algae fuel contractor to date.
A recent study by some University of Virginia researchers who say that algae might not be as environmentally friendly as some regular row crops when it comes to making biodiesel is coming under fire by algae and algal-biofuel organizations.
As you might remember from my post back on January 22, 2010, a study headed by Andres Clarens said that “algae’s environmental footprint is larger than other terrestrial crops.” But according to the executive director for the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts (and several other groups that commented on that January 22 article), those Virginia researchers got it wrong. And NAABB’s Dr. Jose Olivares tells me that the main problem is in the fact that Clarens used data that just is not current anymore.
“A lot of [the data] came out during the aquatic species program, which ran for quite a few years, but ended in the early [1990s].”
He says that old data doesn’t account for the technological advances made in the last 15+ years that have cut algae oil’s production’s energy usage by 100 fold, while creating an environmental footprint for algae that is 20-100 times smaller than row crops.
[There's] a huge danger of misinterpreting what is possible with these types of technologies.”
Olivares points out that there are some positive aspects of the Virginia study, including pointing out that algae can be grown using wastewater … which Olivares says the algal-biofuel industry is already doing.
You can hear more of my conversation with Dr. Olivares below.
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Our friends at the Mid-South Chapter of the National Algae Association are holding another seminar. This time the talk will be “Algae: Mining Wastewater for Nutrients, Fuel, and Fertilizer” at the Holiday Inn Research Center in Huntsville, Alabama on March 26, 2010.
I caught up with the chapter’s president, Tamra Fakhoorian, to talk about this information-packed workshop that will explore using wastewater streams to grow the algae for end-products to include biodiesel.
“Algae production is gaining momentum all over the world, and I want to ensure the algae industry gets off on the right foot regarding sustainability,” says Fakhoorian.
She adds that using wastewater to grow algae is a win-win-win situation: getting oil for growing biodiesel and end-products industries, minimizing the impact on fresh water sources, and saving the environment.
You can hear more of my interview with Fakhoorian below.
Fakhoorian has some pretty good experts slated for this one-day workshop, including:
Aron Stubbins/ Old Dominion University- Deputy Director of Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium
Dr. Michael Baron
Chuck Pardue/Algae Bioenergy Solutions, LLC
Luke McConnell/Renewergy, LLC
Bob Vitale/WaterWheel Factory
Victoria Kurtz/Fluid Imaging
For more information, contact Fakhoorian at 270-328-8314 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also you can check out the Web site: www.nationalalgaeassociation.com and click on the Mid-South Chapter link. Registration is available at the door.
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A man who is considered to be the father of genomics says that if algae-based fuel makers can’t start making billions of gallons of fuel, they are just playing with investors’ money.
This post on earth2tech.com says Craig Venter, the founder of synthetic biology startup Synthetic Genomics, made the remarks at the Wall Street Journal’s Economics conference this week:
In other words the algae companies need to be able to reach the scale at which the oil companies currently operate to be competitive. “That’s the real bugaboo for everybody,” said Venter. To address that hurdle, last July Synthetic Genomics announced that it was partnering with ExxonMobil on a $600 million algae biofuels program.
Synthetic Genomics is different than many of the algae fuel companies out there — Venter estimated there are 200 or so — because Synthetic Genomics is looking to use its synthetic genetic processes to tweak algae and other microorganisms to create synthetic super bugs that can crank out as much fuel as possible. Such genetically-altered bugs could consume CO2 and create synthetic hydro-carbons that could be a fuel replacement.
Venter said the synthetic genomic process could one day fundamentally change not just fuel and transportation, but food supply, medicine, and clean water. Venter and his crew at the J. Craig Venter Institute have already created a completely synthetic bacterial genome, which they claimed back in 2008 was the largest man-made DNA structure ever. Now Venter and the researchers are “extremely close” to activating the synthetic bacteria chromosome in a new cell which would make “the first synthetic species,” and will be their “proof of concept,” as Venter put it at the conference. That’s some crazy stuff.
The article goes on to say that some biofuel companies, such as Synthetic Genomics, are forming partnerships with some big oil companies to address the issue. In addition, Algae biofuel maker Sapphire Energy says it will be able to produce 1 million gallons of algae-based biodiesel and jet fuel per year by next year and a billion gallons per year by 2025.
Sunny days … and biodiesel … will be sweeping the clouds … and the smog … away as the studio that produces Sesame Street will switch to the green fuel for heat.
The New York Daily News reports Kaufman Astoria Studios just became the greenest studio in town as it switches from traditional heating oil to “Greenheat,” a new blend of petroleum and biodiesel produced by a Brooklyn-based company:
The deal with METRO will provide the Astoria facility – the city’s oldest functioning movie studio – with 80,000 gallons of the new fuel a year, making it the largest commercial user of Greenheat in the city.
“Anytime you can do something and not damage your budget dramatically and be able to burn a cleaner fuel…why wouldn’t I?” said Hal Rosenbluth, president of Kaufman Astoria Studios.
METRO President Gene Pullo said commercial customers would normally use a grade of fuel with a higher sulfur content, which means more pollution. But over the past few months, these customers have expressed a greater interest to go green with their heating fuel.
“We recognized that there would be a greater demand for sustainable fuels,” said Pullo, 56, whose grandmother started METRO in 1942.
The studio will use a 5 percent biodiesel blend made from used cooking oil from restaurants, soybean and canola oils, and algae.
The former head of the U.S. Export-Import Bank and Chief Investment Officer of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) is bringing his copious financial knowledge to algae-biofuels producer Sapphire Energy.
This company press release says James Lambright will also head Sapphire’s international expansion efforts:
A respected leader in the private and public financial sectors, Lambright rounds out an already impressive leadership team, which, since 2008, has focused its efforts on producing a scalable, renewable, low carbon liquid transportation fuel from algae, sunlight and CO2.
In this newly created role, Lambright will expand Sapphire’s presence in international markets where, just like America, complex energy needs dominate the agenda.
“No matter the issue – climate change, national energy security, or job creation – Sapphire Energy is poised with a solution – Green Crude,” says Jason Pyle, CEO of Sapphire Energy. “We have unequaled expertise in science, energy, and transportation. And now with Jim on board, we’ve added a depth of international markets and finance experience unmatched in our industry. That, plus the recent federal funding award and our healthy independent investment funds, positions Sapphire well down the path to make Green Crude commercial-ready.”
Lambright adds that he is excited to join Sapphire Energy, and it is the perfect place to help address the most complex challenges facing economies around the world: energy security and the environment.
One of the exhibitors at the recent National Biodiesel Conference that I met with was Drew Harrison, Analytical Sales Manager for IKA Works, Inc. The company was displaying its new Bio Reactor, seen brightly lit in this photo.
Drew says IKA is a hundred year old company. Working with a marine science center they helped them build a photo bio reactor to grow algae. They built a prototype which the marine center used effectively and now they’ve come out with a production model which was on display at the trade show. The unit is a small R&D 10 litre fermenting tank with light for the photosynthesis reactions. He says this can be done in larger volumes too. They will work with a client company to build one to the size they need. Their customers will be “anybody who is looking to harvest algae for biodiesel, nutriceuticals, pharmaceuticals and food.”
You can learn more by listening to my interview with Drew here:
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A researcher at Iowa State University is genetically modifying algae to make it a better feedstock for biodiesel.
This article from Biodiesel Magazine says Martin Spalding, ISU professor of genetics, development and cell biology,has received a $4.37 million grant U.S. Department of Energy to stack traits in algae, specifically, one type of alga, Chlamydomonas, whose genome has already been mapped out:
Spalding hopes stacking Chlamydomonas’ desirable traits will lead to more oil production and thermal resistance, ultimately developing a desirable feedstock for biodiesel and other renewable fuels production.
“We have a sequenced genome, we understand the metabolism, and we have the tools available to us to work with this alga,” Spalding said. Much of the current research on algae is being conducted on wild strains that have certain desirable traits such as high oil yield, but Spalding said, “The limitation with that strategy is that it has no flexibility because the algae can’t be manipulated genetically.”
Since the Chlamydomonas genome is already mapped, however, work can be done to tailor the genetic makeup of this alga to meet the growing biofuel industry’s needs.
It’s a three-year study that Spalding will conduct with some fellow ISU professors and Purdue University researchers as well.
The National Algae Association’s Mid-South Chapter will be holding a workshop on how to best use wastewater to grow algae, especially algae for use in biodiesel.
The workshop, entitled “Algae: Mining Wastewater for Nutrients, Fuel, and Fertilizer,” will be held in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday, March 26, 2010:
With US fresh water supplies slowly dwindling and algae culture quickly becoming the centerpiece of bioenergy/bioremediation research , we must carefully examine our water and nutrient sources for an efficient, sustainable algal industry. This workshop explores how to minimize algae’s fresh water and nutrient footprints by recycling anthropogenic wastewater streams including agricultural, municipal, and industrial, while at the same time producing a host of valuable algal end products. In addition, we will learn of algae’s tremendous potential as a cost-effective bioremediation tool for wastewater streams, effecting a more stable and healthy ecosystem.
The group is also calling for white papers to include in the workshop looking at wastewater applications for both open pond and closed loop algae systems, technologies and support equipment. But you’ll need to hurry, because papers must be submitted by March 1st.
For more information on the workshop and white paper submission, contact Tamra Fakhoorian at TamraF.NAA@wk.net.
One of the biggest knocks on algae-based biodiesel is the high cost for the truly green fuel. But the U.S. military says it is just months away from making biodiesel from algae for the same cost as its petroleum-based counterpart.
The UK’s Guardian reports that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency … better known as DARPA …. which helped develop the internet and satellite navigation systems, has surprised the industry with the announcement:
Darpa’s research projects have already extracted oil from algal ponds at a cost of $2 per gallon. It is now on track to begin large-scale refining of that oil into jet fuel, at a cost of less than $3 a gallon, according to Barbara McQuiston, special assistant for energy at Darpa. That could turn a promising technology into a market-ready one. Researchers have cracked the problem of turning pond scum and seaweed into fuel, but finding a cost-effective method of mass production could be a game-changer. “Everyone is well aware that a lot of things were started in the military,” McQuiston said.
The work is part of a broader Pentagon effort to reduce the military’s thirst for oil, which runs at between 60 and 75 million barrels of oil a year. Much of that is used to keep the US Air Force in flight. Commercial airlines – such as Continental and Virgin Atlantic – have also been looking at the viability of an algae-based jet fuel, as has the Chinese government.
“Darpa has achieved the base goal to date,” she said. “Oil from algae is projected at $2 per gallon, headed towards $1 per gallon.”
DARPA officials expect to have a 50 million-gallon-a-year algae-biodiesel refinery up and running sometime next year, making it possible that cost for the fuel will drop even further.
The effort is part of the Pentagon’s plans to get half of its fuel from renewable sources by 2016.
UNL scientists will begin growing algae in bags like these later this year as part of their research into algal biofuels. George Oyler / courtesy photo.
Algae research continues to get a lot of focus. University of Nebraska-Lincoln has announced that it will expand its algae research center this year, dedicating more space in the Beadle Center greenhouse for the work. As reported by Biomass Magazine, the university received $1.9 million in federal funding for it current research in alternative energy and is anticipating additional funds.
Scientists, using natural algae strains, will begin by growing algae in bags. From there, they will move to oblong ponds. Along the way, they hope to achieve three goals as identified by Paul Black, a lipid biochemist at UNL who will be participating in the study: identify the best strains for maximum oil production; identify optimal growing conditions; and modify the algae for maximum cell density.
Currently, the research team is working with a photo bioreactor that is designed to increase cell density per unit volume from about two grams per liter to eight to 10 grams per liter, by exploring maximum light and carbon dioxide conditions, Black said. Cell density is important because their is a possibility of making it simpler to harvest the algae. “You’re in essence, fooling them,” said Black.
Another area of concentration is optimizing oil extraction. According to Black, the team has used organic solvents and is also looking at using carbon dioxide and high pressure.
Although there is no immediate timeframe for the establishment of tangible results, Black anticipates some compelling data to be forthcoming within a year.