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Research Unlocks Algae Biofuel Potential

By John Daly | Mon, 25 November 2013 23:56 | 5

Along with camelina and jatropha, marine algae is a front runner in the search for a renewable feedstock for production of commercial quantities of biofuel.

While marine algae produce lipid oils, fat molecules that store energy needed for fuel production, the process occurs when they are nutritionally starved, which also stunts their growth. When well-nourished, the algae do grow well, but produce carbohydrates instead of the desired lipids for conversion to fuel.

But, in a breakthrough with potentially massive implications for production of commercial quantities of biofuel, researchers at the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego have developed a way to target a specific enzyme inside a group of microscopic algae known as diatoms, metabolically engineering a way to increase their production of lipids without hurting growth.

Related article: Washington Gives in to Pressure and Cuts Biofuel Mandate

The researchers targeted fat-reducing enzymes inside the diatoms and tweaked their metabolism to increase lipids without compromising growth, university officials said. Emily Trentacoste and her colleagues used a data set of genetic expression (transcriptomics) to target a specific enzyme inside the diatoms (Thalassiosira pseudonana). By metabolically engineering a lessening of the fat-reducing lipases enzymes, the researchers were able to increase lipids without compromising growth.

The potential biofuel implications are enormous, as the researchers maintain that the genetically altered strains they have developed could be produced broadly in other species.

Scripps graduate student Emily Trentacoste, who led the research efforts, commented, "These results demonstrate that targeted metabolic manipulations can be used to increase accumulation of fuel-relevant molecules… with no negative effects on growth. We have shown that engineering this pathway is a unique and practical approach for increasing lipid yields.''

The study, co-authored by Mark Hildebrand, Scripps marine biology professor, William Gerwick, Roshan Shrestha, Sarah Smith, Corine Gle, and Aaron Hartmann was reported in last week's online edition of the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.''

Hildebrand said that the accomplishment was significant, commenting, "Scientifically this is a huge achievement. Five years ago people said you would never be able to get more lipids without affecting growth negatively'. This paper shows that there isn't an intrinsic barrier and gives us hope of more new things that we can try - it opens the door to a lot more work to be done.' ' Paper coauthor William Gerwick, a distinguished professor of oceanography and pharmaceutical sciences at Scripps’s Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine and UC San Diego’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences remarked, “It seems especially fitting that Scripps-UC San Diego is displaying so much leadership in the field of sustainable biofuels from algae, for instance with the California Center for Algae Biotechnology starting here, given the history of the institution playing such a pivotal role in climate change research. But these advances do not happen in isolation, and the current project is a great illustration of how different labs can collaborate to achieve greater advances than possible singly.”

The researchers are well aware of the economic implications of their study. By increasing the yields of algae biofuel, production costs for biofuels could be lowered, the researchers believe. The team also said the speed of algal biofuel crop production could be advanced, writing in their paper, “Maintaining high growth rates and high biomass accumulation is imperative for algal biofuel production on large economic scales.”

Related article: Brazil Grapples with Biofuel Supply Glut

The research when patented and commercially available has the potential to move algae to the forefront of the most promising feedstocks for future biofuel production. Algae’s advantages include their widespread availability, higher oil yields and that they reduce the pressure on cultivated land for production of biodiesel. Thus, algae will be the future of fuel. Algae as a fuel source are incredible. Some types of algae are made up of 50 percent oil, which can be made into biofuel more economically. Theoretically, algae can yield between 1,000-20,000 gallons of oil per acre, depending on the specific strain.

Accordingly, expect to see much more on the Scripps research in the future – given the research’s potential impact, the one thing the Scripps researchers will not lack in the future is investment cash.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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  • anonymous on November 26 2013 said:
    Washington, the DOE's Inspector General published a 24-page Follow-up Audit of the Department of Energy's Financial Assistance for Integrated Biorefinery Projects", which found that "despite over 7 years of effort and the expenditure of about $603 million, the Department had not yet achieved its biorefinery development and production goals." Biofuel Digest - September 18, 2013"
  • Daniel R Pearson on November 26 2013 said:
    Genetically engineered diatom algae for a fuel source is a dream come true for me, and process is much needed for our existence on this planet. I cut my teeth as a coastal marine geologist, but after my MS degree I did something I never thought or planned on doing professionally. Which is I worked for a major Oil and Gas company as a career. This decision was driven due to health reasons, and it was the correct one for me.

    I had been studying and had a very close relationship with the our Oceans and dynamic Atmosphere since I was 12 years old. My plan from 12 years old was to study our oceans and atmosphere and work as a scientist. Since the university I attended did not have a Oceanography Department, I enrolled as a freshman into the Geology Department. Much of my expertise in Marine Geology and Atmospheric sciences was from self teaching and studying coastal processes since I was a avid surfer, body surfer, and water person.

    Since I worked as a professional Petroleum Geoscientist my expertise in oil and gas exploration and exploitation lead me to realize how archaic the mechanical process of finding hydrocarbons was. In my mind I knew there could be a better way to speed up the maturation process involved in hydrocarbon production over geologic time. The process of drilling holes in the ground to tap reservoirs of matured waste products from animal and plant life which had matured over time to form oil and gas was very labor intense on a mechanical basis, but very interesting on a scientific exploration basis.

    The massive mechanical aspects of drilling for energy products was archaic. This was very apparent when you are sitting on a drill rig for days on end while supervising the logging and testing of your scientific work. The work was exciting, yet it was pretty archaic in my opinion back in the early 1980's. Grinding and twisting large metal drill pipe into and out of the ground just did not seem the best we could do as humans to obtain the energy we needed from dead animal and plant biomass.

    In my mind this process of retrieving energy products from hydrocarbon organic materials should be achieved by growing the biomass and accelerating the maturation process to produce oil and gas energy products. Previous to my career as a Petroleum Geoscientist I used to manage a land based oyster production facility in Hawaii. We grew Crassostrea virginica oysters from spat to maturity in about 6 months by feeding them algal blooms through swimming pool like 'race trenches', and the amount of by-product seaweed created from this accelerated process of growing oysters was incredible.

    With this knowledge of accelerated biomass production, it was easy for me to envision using the same thought process to produce hydrocarbon energy products from algae. I never had a chance to follow up on my visions due to health issues, but it is great to see what is happening with my ole friend 'diatoms/algae'. Your article represents some great work and it is way late in coming IMHO. Regards, and good luck with your work. Daniel R Pearson.
  • AlexS on November 28 2013 said:
    It would be nice if artificially grown algae could reduce our carbon footprint. They can't. They have to get their carbon from somewhere. Usually, concentrated CO2 is used, and there is not enough of it available (by a couple of orders of magnitude), and making more requires burning more fossil fuels - thus defying the purpose of the whole exercise.

    The algae that could be converted into carbon-neutral biofuels do exist - it's marine plankton. It lives in the biggest CO2 scrubber on the planet, the ocean. Other than fall foliage, it appears to be the only source of biomass on the planet that renews itself faster (in terms of GtC/yr) than our rate of burning fossil fuels. It would be interesting to know if anybody actually works on utilizing this resource.
  • BOB on December 30 2013 said:
    no details were stated as to the rate of improvement attained..
  • Dion Hagenaar on January 05 2014 said:
    Biodiesel obtained from algae oil will not have a big share in the fuel market as long as the cost price of this kind of biodiesel remains higher than that of fossil fuels. It would be interesting to see a graph of the cost prices of both fossil fuels and algae oil over the last 10 years. Too bad it's hard to find that information since different companies use different techniques which all go with different costs.

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