Algal production research and development (R&D) explores resource use and availability, algal biomass development and improvements, characterizing algal biomass components, and the ecology and engineering of cultivation systems.
Resources necessary to grow algae sustainably include non-arable land, non-potable water, waste nutrient streams, waste carbon dioxide, sufficient sunlight, and supporting infrastructure to access downstream processing operations. Development of an algal biofuel industry requires scaling up to use a significant amount of these resources. The Renewable Carbon Resources program coordinates with the Data, Modeling, and Analysis program to do the following:
- Identify potential geographic locations for algal farms based on resource access and availability
- Estimate costs for current and future resources
- Assess the environmental sustainability of resource use.
Algal biomass includes microalgae, macroalgae, and cyanobacteria. Algal biomass development focuses on identifying or improving on those properties—such as a fast growth rate and high oil content—that make algae attractive for biofuel conversion. Renewable Carbon Resources program R&D activities include searching for new strains out in the wild as well as investigating potential biological improvements from breeding and genetic engineering. Biomass development also includes systems biology approaches to improve advantageous traits for production.
Fundamental components of algae—like lipids, starches, and proteins—vary greatly among strains and in comparison to plants. However, standard procedures to reliably quantify these components are not readily available. It is critical to understand algae's biomass characteristics at various times in the growth cycle to develop cultivation management strategies, downstream processes, and final products. The Renewable Carbon Resources program is funding work to standardize laboratory methodologies and learn more about algal components.
R&D funded by the Renewable Carbon Resources program focuses on a variety of algae cultivation systems that include, but are not limited to, open ponds, attached growth systems, and closed photobioreactors. Cultivation systems must minimize resource use and costs while maximizing productivity. Cultivation strategies include:
- Crop protection
- Water and nutrient management
- Ecosystem design
- Light optimization
- Temperature management
- Seasonal succession.