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Arizona State University Launches Cyanobacteria Biodiesel Research Project with BP and SFAz

A microscopic image of cyanobacteria stained with fluorescent dyes for fat content. The cyanobacteria are being optimized to produce high-energy fat with an estimated high fuel yield.

Arizona State University has entered into a two-year research project to optimize the cyanobacterium Synechocystis to serve as feedstock for biodiesel production, with funding from energy company BP and Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz). (Cynanobacteria are photosynthetic bacteria, and are sometimes called blue-green algae, although there is no relationship between the cyanobacteria and other organisms called algae.) This basic research will be complemented by parallel development of pilot production capabilities to define the optimum parameters for commercially viable, large-scale, biomass-to-energy conversion.

ASU Professors Wim Vermaas and Bruce Rittmann will lead the scientific R&D efforts while colleague Neal Woodbury will serve as project coordinator. Vermaas will direct metabolic engineering research to optimize the microbial systems while Rittmann will maximize the large-scale pilot production parameters.

Vermass had received a $126,700 grant from SFAz in April 2007 to support an investigation into the function and metabolism of carotenoids—light-protective and anti-oxidant compounds—in cyanobacteria.

Cyanobacteria offer unmatched biofuel yield relative to other potential sources of bioenergy, including arable crops and forestry-based candidates, according to the project leaders. The ASU/BP/SFAz partnership will seek to boost the fatty acid metabolism of Synechocystis to generate more lipids while minimizing competing metabolic pathways.

The ASU team is projecting the development of a roof-top pilot production facility. A series of photobioreactors will be constructed to allow for the growth of cyanobacteria in a closed production system to optimize growth conditions and make the process efficient and cost-effective. The blue-green bacteria are grown in large, transparent tubes that capture sunlight necessary for growth. ASU has dubbed the project ”Tubes in the Desert.“

A rendering of a rooftop pilot production facility. Click to enlarge.




What do they eat? Could you just reroute a building's sewage through the bioreactors and get a two-fer-one?


Wow. Talk about getting down to basics. Cyanobacteria are about as primitive a photosynthetic organism as you can get.


There are some 2600 strains of cyanobacteria and this particular one has already received a lot of attention for their hydrogeneses of H2. NREL has done work in this area along with various universities and the Venter Inst. This is the first I have found that attempts to use Synechocystis for fatty acid production.

Clearly with the abundance of these organisms in the oceans - natural templates for engineered cyanobacterium to produce both H2 via photolytic action and fatty acids - should be vigorously pursued.

The problem with H2 production has been cyanobacterium O2 intolerance. Perhaps fatty acids production does not have these problems. A good avenue to continue down for our energy future.

John Schreiber

A very good project. The Berkeley doc had this link in it.


I think the bacteria that produce hydrogen do it in the absence of oxygen, and although researchers are looking for alternatives, right now it is a big restriction. That pathway, is probably independent of the lipid mechanism though. Cyanobacteria tend to have multiple folds/layers that produce different things depending on the available inputs. They are flex fuel, as it were.

Nicholas Bole

I understand that most biodiesel production requires the use of the toxic solvent methanol. Does the blue-green algae process use less toxic solvents? Doesn't methanol production also require the use of fossil fuels? Also, is Synechocystis the only species that can produce oil, or could any type of cyanobacteria do this?

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