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Microalgal Biofuels Capabilities

Research into producing microalgal biofuels for transportation has been revitalized at NREL. Because algae have the potential to produce the feedstock for a number of transportation fuels—biodiesel, "green" diesel and gasoline, and jet fuel—NREL has developed strong capabilities in producing biofuels from microalgae.

Through standard procedures for microalgal biofuels analysis, NREL helps scientists and researchers understand more about the chemical composition of algae.

This video is a narrated animation that explains the microalgae-to-biofuels conversion process.

NREL's capabilities in microalgal biofuels R&D include:

Why is algal research important?

Algae have the potential to produce the feedstock for transportation fuels. In the near term, algae may also mitigate the effects of carbon dioxide from sources such as power plants. In the future, they may be used to capture and reuse fossil fuel-generated carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.

Microalgae (microscopic algae) include a variety of photosynthetic microorganisms that use solar energy and carbon dioxide to create biomass more efficiently and rapidly than terrestrial plants.

  • Isolation, characterization, and engineering of single-celled organisms, including the genetic modification of microalgal species

  • Isolation, purification, and identification of novel microalgal strains from samples obtained from unique aquatic environments using fluorescence activated cell sorting

  • Cryopreservation of microalgal isolates in liquid nitrogen for long-term storage of biological diversity

  • High-throughput analysis based on near infrared spectroscopy and pyrolysis molecular beam mass spectrometry to assess lipid production in microalgae

  • Small-scale lipid extraction, quantification, and analysis as well as high-throughput fatty acid derivatization for analysis by fast gas chromatography

  • Analysis using gas chromatography with mass spectrometry detection and ultra performance liquid chromatography, allowing for the detailed monitoring of metabolite fingerprinting in algal and other microbial species

  • Digital gene expression for analysis of microbial strains used for biofuel production

  • Photosynthetic efficiency measuring aimed at down-selecting algal species and strains with high efficiency of solar energy conversion, carbon dioxide capture, and biofuels production

  • Pathway engineering aimed at enhancing the synthesis of next-generation renewable biofuels using a model unicellular cyanobacterial platform

  • Year-round cultivation of microalgae in 1-m2 open raceway ponds in NREL's greenhouse facilities as well as in laboratory-scale photobioreactors under controlled conditions

  • High-performance computing for exploration and optimization of metabolic pathway performance

  • Measuring critical photosynthetic parameters such as oxygen evolution, photosynthetic efficiency, carbon dioxide uptake, partial reactions of photosynthesis, and biomass production.

Learn about microalgal biofuels projects, the Algal Biofuels Research Laboratory, and the Photobiology Research Laboratory.