ASU scientist part of team developing giant biomass plant

August 1, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: Phoenix Business Journal, Angela Gonzales] – Bruce Rittmann, director of the Center for Environmental Biotechnology at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, is on a mission to use bacteria to produce energy.

“What we’re going to do is use our ultimate energy source directly from the sun and capture some of that energy by growing photosynthetic microorganisms,” he said. “These organisms are new sources of renewable biomass energy.”

His goal is to use bacteria to produce biomass that can be turned into liquid fuels, such as biodiesel, in a large-scale commercial operation. Rittmann is collaborating with other ASU professors to replace fossil fuels with these photosynthetic systems.

“We must succeed at this,” he said. “We have to have something that’s massive. This is the only thing that’s massive.”

The 2-year-old project has about $5 million in funding from the Science Foundation of Arizona and British Petroleum.

Neal Woodbury, director of the Center for BioOptical Nanotechnology at the Biodesign Institute, said the idea of the project is to grow cyanobacteria in large quantities, then isolate a diesel-like product from the organisms. Cyanobacteria commonly are found in ponds and unattended swimming pools that have turned green with algae.

Another ASU professor, Willem Vermaas, has been able to increase the amount of lipids, or fats, in the organisms for use in the production of biodiesel fuel.

“There’s a lot of interest in taking that organism and growing it and understanding how to remove the lipid from it, taking that lipid down and using that as a fuel source,” Woodbury said.

Cyanobacteria grow rapidly. “Unlike plants, these organisms will double about once a day under normal circumstances. So you can harvest half of the mass of material each day, and the next day that half will reappear again,” he said. “If you don’t put chlorine in your pool, it doesn’t take very long.”

The professors are hammering out a deal with a local utility to conduct the project on a major commercial scale. Because the agreement hasn’t been signed, they are reluctant to name the utility, but they hope to have the deal done this fall.

The scientists plan to set up shop next to the utility’s fossil-fuel plant to pipe carbon dioxide emitted by the plant into tubes containing the bacteria. The bacteria need to consume carbon dioxide to make oil, which creates a carbon-neutral energy source; and, as a bonus, they keep the fossil-fuel plant from emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“The question really becomes how you scale this up, and how you make it economical,” Woodbury said, adding that the size of the biomass plant would be one hectare, or 10,000 square meters.

The first phase of the project will end next spring, and the ASU researchers are working on a grant request to the Science Foundation and British Petroleum, explaining how they plan to take the project to the next level.

Rittmann said he’s been working on environmental sustainability issues since he was an undergraduate student in the 1970s.

“The needs of society have transformed themselves over the years, and I’ve tried to orient myself,” he said. “What I do is address the pressing environmentally related needs of society. It’s always a motivation for me. As new needs arise, I try to jump in when I have something to offer.”

Bruce Rittmann
Title: Director, Center for Environmental Biotechnology
Company: Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University
Industry: Research and development
Years on the job: 3.5
Why it’s green: Developing new technologies for energy sustainability