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Making Algal Biofuel Production More Efficient, Less Expensive

January 10, 2014 - 1:08pm


Researchers at the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed an innovative process that turns algae into bio-crude in less than 60 minutes. Watch the video above to see how the process works. | Video courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Tiny algae can play a big role in tackling America's energy challenges. Algae, small organisms that grow quickly and take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, can potentially serve as a great home-grown source of renewable, sustainable fuel for our nation’s transportation fleet.

Recent scientific breakthroughs, funded by the Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), have resulted in a number of advancements that are helping to make algal biofuel more cost competitive and widely available.  These include:

In addition to the advancements listed above, a number of algal biofuel companies are leveraging Energy Department cooperative agreements to acquire significant private investments, form strategic partnerships, and demonstrate pre-commercial production levels of algal biofuels. A few recent examples include: 

  • BETO-supported industrial biotechnology company exceeds algae biofuel production target – Algenol began operating its pilot-scale integrated biorefinery, which demonstrates the commercial viability of its two-step fuel production technology. Algenol has an algae strain that can produce ethanol directly, and the system can then convert remaining biomass into hydrocarbon fuels such as biodiesel, gasoline, and jet fuel.  The biorefinery has helped Algenol exceed its milestone of 9,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year at peak productivity, with an additional 1,100 gallons per acre per year of hydrocarbon fuels. Algenol expects to expand their operations to full commercial scale by the end of this year.
  • Sapphire Energy  moves algae oil production closer towards commercial scale – Sapphire Energy, a producer of algae-based “green  crude” oil and recent recipient of DOE funding, entered into contract agreements with two major oil and gas companies—Phillips 66 and Tesoro. Phillips 66, an integrated energy manufacturing and logistics company, partnered with Sapphire to test and upgrade Sapphire’s “Green Crude” to on-spec diesel—meaning it could be dropped into any existing diesel fuel tank and delivered using current infrastructure. Tesoro, an independent refiner and marketer of petroleum products, entered into a commercial purchase agreement with Sapphire for its Green Crude oil. Sapphire is expected to produce the nation’s first algae oil on a commercial scale by 2015.
  • Energy Department awards funding for integrated R&D on algal biology and downstream processing – During BETO’s Biomass 2013 conference, Secretary Moniz announced up to $16.5 million in funding for new algae biofuels projects. Hawaii Bioenergy, Sapphire Energy, New Mexico State University, and California Polytechnic State University all received funding to demonstrate algal biofuel intermediate yields of greater than 2,500 gallons per acre by 2018.
  • New Energy Department awards for low-cost algae production – Iowa-based BioProcess Algae LLC recently  received $6.4 million from the Energy Department to evaluate an innovative algal growth platform to develop advanced biofuels for U.S. military jets and ships.
  • Collaborative outdoor algae production testing facilities up and running – The Arizona State University-led Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3) and the University of Arizona Regional Algae Feedstock Testbed (RAFT) partnership recently kicked off their project work to help accelerate the research and development of algae-based technologies.  Both partnerships manage algal biofuel research and development facilities across the United States and serve as learning environments for the next generation of scientists, engineers, and business leaders. Learn more about ATP3 and RAFT.

These projects, and the public-private partnerships supporting them, are helping our nation become less dependent on foreign oil, improving our energy security, and protecting our natural resources.