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NSF Awards NCSU Team $2M For Research on Deriving Drop-in Renewable Hydrocarbon Fuels from Algae

Dunaliella
Dunaliella. Source: Texas A&M. Click to enlarge.

The National Science Foundations has awarded a team of researchers at North Carolina State University a $2-million grant to develop and scale up a unique, multi-step catalytic process to convert a wide range of fats, oils, and lipids produced by algae into transportation fuels that are chemically and physically similar to their petroleum counterparts. The award is one of the eight Hydrocarbons from Biomass (HyBi) projects awarded through the NSF Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI). (Earlier post.)

The team will begin working with marine algae called Dunaliella, which grow in brackish or salty water. The first of many parallel steps for the research effort is to mass-culture the best oil-producing strains of Dunaliella, and then to map the Dunaliella genome and identify the genes responsible for regulating the quantities and qualities of the produced fatty acids.

Once that has been done, the researchers plan to replace those genes with genes from other organisms to produce the desired fatty acids and overcome the internal regulatory mechanisms that could potentially limit fatty acid production.

Next, the necessary technology and protocols to grow the algae and extract the fatty acids will need to be fine-tuned. Simultaneously, the researchers will ascertain which chemical catalysts and operating parameters should be used to optimize the conversion of the fatty acids into the desired fuels.

Finally, the various fuels will be tested to ensure that they can be used in place of conventional diesel, gasoline and jet fuels.

We’re looking at microscopic marine algae that produce fatty acids and do not have a cell wall. We plan to genetically modify the algae so that they will continuously produce these fatty acids, which we can then continually harvest. We also plan to genetically modify the algae to produce fatty acids of a specific length, to expedite the conversion of the fatty acids into fuels that can be used by our existing transportation infrastructure.

The goal is to create fuels that can be used in place of diesel, gasoline and jet fuel—though jet fuel will be the most technically challenging. It has to be cost-competitive, or none of this makes sense. It’s easy to be cost-competitive when oil is at $300 a barrel, but it’s harder when the price of oil drops. Our goal is to optimize this technology so that it is cost-competitive, renewable, can be produced domestically and is environmentally friendly.

—Dr. Bill Roberts, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State and primary investigator of the grant

Roberts adds that an additional benefit to using algae as a fuel source is that the algal cultures would be transportable. For example, people in a remote area could set up a system to grow the algae and produce the fuel on-site, rather than shipping the finished product thousands of miles.

The $2 million grant is part of the federal stimulus package and comes from NSF’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation program. The funding is spread over four years, with the algae research scheduled for completion in July 2013, and will draw on the expertise of an interdisciplinary team of scientists from NC State.

The research team includes Roberts, Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, William Neal Reynolds Professor of plant biology; Dr. Henry Lamb, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Dr. Heike Sederoff, assistant professor of plant biology; Dr. Larry Stikeleather, professor of biological and agricultural engineering; Dr. Amy Grunden, associate professor of microbiology; and Dr. Wendy Boss, William Neal Reynolds Professor of plant biology. The researchers will also be collaborating with NC State Ph.D. student Tim Turner, and industry partners Diversified Energy Corp. and Innova Tech.

Diversified Energy Corporation holds an exclusive license to the Centia technology, developed at NC State. (Earlier post.) Centia is based on a three-step thermal, catalytic, and reforming process that has the potential to turn virtually any lipidic compound—e.g., vegetable oils, oils from animal fat and oils from algae—into 1-for-1 replacements for petroleum jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

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