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NREL Selected to Spearhead $3.5 Million DOE Project to Advance Algal Biofuels and Bioproducts

September 27, 2017

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced the selection of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to lead a new project, for up to $3.5 million, with the goal of reducing the production costs of algae-based biofuels and bioproducts through improvements in algal biomass yields.

The project, “Rewiring Algal Carbon Energetics for Renewables (RACER),” aims to more than double the productivity of biofuel precursors from algae by making improvements at many stages of the process. These improvements include increasing algal cultivation productivity, optimizing biomass composition, and extracting and separating different types of algal lipids to reduce the cost for lipid upgrading to renewable diesel.

In addition to NREL, the project team includes members from Colorado State University (CSU), Colorado School of Mines, Arizona State University (ASU), POS Bio-Sciences, and Sapphire Energy. The team has chosen one highly promising algal species—Desmodesmus armatus—and will focus on fundamental cell carbon bioenergetics to most efficiently channel the carbon dioxide taken in from the atmosphere into useful intermediate products.

"We're excited to leverage the strengths of all our partners on this important project,” said NREL Senior Scientist Lieve Laurens. “From building on the work already done by Sapphire with the D. armatus strain to ASU’s manipulation of optimal outdoor conditions to CSU’s research to improve photosynthesis in the strain and fermentation of the sugars—each team member is playing an integral role.”

One approach NREL will be investigating is to look at both increasing the intracellular carbohydrate storage and reducing the excreted carbon in the vicinity of the cells. “All of the carbon that is excreted is not being assimilated and does not become biomass yield, representing significant losses that can be mitigated,” said Laurens. “We are going to try and stop that from happening with this organism so that the carbon will be internalized and assimilated into the sink—a sort of storage bucket—inside the cells, thus improving biomass yields and tailoring the biomass composition to be more amenable to fuel production.” The team will be supported by techno-economic and sustainability analysis to track progress against aggressive cost and life-cycle metrics of the portfolio of products produced.

This Bioenergy Technologies Office-funded project supports the office’s goal to develop technologies that are likely to succeed in producing 3,700 gallons of algal biofuel intermediate (or equivalent dry weight basis) per acre per year on an annualized average basis in an outdoor test environment by 2020.

—Kathy Cisar