UA researchers join public-private alliance to bring new biofuels to market

January 28, 2010

By hammersmith

Researchers from the University of Arizona are part of a team of academic and industry scientists from across the country that has received a $44 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop new sources of algal biofuels and bioproducts. The federal funds, competitively awarded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will be matched by the private sector and cost-share funds.

“Advanced biofuels are crucial to building a clean energy economy,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “This investment will help spur the creation of the domestic bio-industry, while creating jobs and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.”

Ten UA professors, representing fields from plant sciences to the study of arid lands, will work on the projects of the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts, which altogether involves 25 academic institutions and private firms. Kimberly Ogden, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering, will serve as UA’s principal investigator.

“To tackle the problem of large-scale production of algae for fuels and other products, we have to have a better understanding of everything from the biology to the interfacing with existing petroleum processing plants,” Dr. Ogden said. “We’re looking at the whole thing,” she said, “from growing algae to putting fuel in your tank.”

“This is really exciting, and it’s a great project because of all the expertise being brought together–from the private sector, universities, and national labs,” said Michael Cusanovich, director of the Arizona Research Laboratories at UA, and one of the investigators on the grant.

“This grant has a number of fundamental components, ranging from discovery to identifying new strains of algae that can be optimized for fuel production,” Dr. Cusanovich said. “And we’re talking about developing systems that would be able to generate billions of gallons a year.”

Joel Cuello, a professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, is engaged in growing microalgae for biofuel in a photobioreactor called “Accordion,” which circulates an algae and nutrient solution through a series of vertically stacked plates of flexible plastic.

“We will have the right mix of technologies in place in two to three years, and it will be at the pump, I would say, in five years,” Dr. Cuello predicted.

Approximately $3 million from the grant should flow to UA, though Dr. Ogden indicated that with budgets in flux, it is too soon to provide a precise figure. The alliance will be headquartered at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.

Over the past several years, biofuels research and commercialization in Arizona has accelerated considerably, becoming a segment of the biosciences with a statewide footprint, from UA’s efforts and those of researchers at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus and Biodesign Institute, to startup firms such as Yulex Corp. in Maricopa and Algae Biosciences Corp. in Overgaard.

A biofuels research and industry community has also begun emerging in Arizona. The nonprofit Desert Biofuels Initiative is working on several projects to promote locally produced, locally used biofuels. In September, the national Algal Biomass Organization will be holding its primary annual conference, the Algal Biomass Summit, in Phoenix.

For more information:

Project Sage Special Report: Achieving Sustainability Through Agriculture,” UANews, 01/27/2010

UA part of federal effort to develop advanced biofuels,” UA news release, 01/13/2010

Secretary Chu Announces Nearly $80 Million Investment for Advanced Biofuels Research and Fueling Infrastructure,” U.S. Department of Energy news release, 01/13/2010