Algae-to-fuel work gets $3 mil

September 5, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: The Arizona Republic, Ken Alltucker] – An Arizona State University spinoff company has secured $3 million in public and private funds to advance its technology that converts algae to jet fuel.

Two ASU scientists who are developing the technology have already proven it works in the lab. Now, they are growing algae in solar tubes at ASU’s Polytechnic campus to demonstrate the renewable fuel can be produced on a larger scale.

Such renewable technology has interested a diverse group that includes the Department of Defense and commercial airlines, which are desperate for a source of inexpensive, plentiful fuel for aircraft.

The brains behind the algae-to-jet-fuel concept are ASU professors Qiang Hu and Milton Sommerfeld, who head ASU’s Laboratory for Algae Research & Biotechnology.

The renewable jet fuel and other environmentally friendly fuel sources being harvested at ASU potentially represent “game-changing technologies,” said Augustine Cheng, managing director of Arizona Technology Enterprises, ASU’s technology-transfer arm.

Arizona Technology Enterprises negotiated a licensing agreement with a private investment group, Heliae Development, that will return fees and a share of any commercialization income to the university. Heliae, led by Frank Mars, will also invest $1.5 million in the technology.

Several members of the Mars family – owners of the food conglomerate that makes M&M’s – are privately investing in the technology because of their personal commitment to helping develop environmentally friendly energy sources, according to ASU.

Science Foundation Arizona, the non-profit group that seeks to bolster the state’s math and science initiatives, will also award a $1.5 million grant to the initiative.

The initial $3 million investment will allow the backers to ramp up the pilot project over the next two years. The scientists believe the algae fields can eventually yield one barrel of jet fuel per acre each day.

Science Foundation Arizona CEO William Harris said his group was excited about the prospects for the technology.

“It’s a very intelligent bet,” Harris said. “Only so many of these will make it over time, and we think this is one of them.”

The ASU scientists identified algae strains that can be converted to fatty acids and be used to make a kerosene-based aviation fuel.

The algae are “medium-chain” fatty acids that do not need to be treated with an expensive chemical to be converted to kerosene, unlike other comparable fuel sources derived from animal fat, vegetable oils or other strains of algae oils, according to ASU researchers. Due to that more efficient process, ASU researchers believe that the fuel can be less expensive to make than other forms of kerosene-based jet fuel.

The company will lease space at SkySong in Scottsdale.

ASU President Michael Crow said the algae-based jet fuel was one of several experimental fuel sources being studied and developed at ASU.

A common thread among many of the technologies studied at the university’s Biodesign Institute are that they draw on natural resources such as sunlight, Crow said.

Many think that Arizona’s natural advantage rests with solar power because of the state’s rich sunlight. However, Crow said several projects now being studied – including a project that aims to produce biofuel from bacteria grown in tubes on top of a building at ASU’s main campus – are also seeking to harvest the power of the sun.

“It is a retreat to a new way of thinking,” Crow said. “It is returning back to the way nature works. What does it take to build like nature does and design like nature does?”

Traditional methods of generating energy, such as burning coal and natural gas, are inefficient because they waste too much energy and produce harmful emissions, Crow said.