Rotifers are semitransparent microscopic animals. Watching them feed under a microscope, one can’t help but feel a sense of awe at nature’s complexity. Its oval-shaped body rotates as it ingests small beads of algae.
However, grazers, such as rotifers and chytrids, can account for a 30% loss in annual algal biomass, according to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). And that’s a problem, especially since algae can be used as a biofuel.
The lab team recently announced it has received an additional $1 million from the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) to develop a “probiotic” bacteria capable of combating algae pond infestation in order to increase the ecosystem’s function and resilience.
Algae could prove a viable alternative to petroleum-based diesel and jet fuels, according to the LLNL. “Algae store energy in the form of oils and carbohydrates, which, combined with their high productivity, means they can produce from 2,000 to as many as 5,000 gallons of biofuels per acre per year,” according to All About Algae. They can be microscopic in size or long strands of seaweed.
“Annual productivity is a key metric for algal biofuel that, if optimized, could significantly decrease and stabilize biofuel price per gallon,” according to the LLNL.
Recently, USA Today reported oil prices have dropped below $50 per barrel. While algae may be a more green way of creating energy, the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts reported that per gallon price for algae biofuels are $7.50 per gallon, or $315 per barrel.
The LLNL team estimated a minimum 5% to 10% increase in annual algae productivity if a suitable probiotic bacteria is developed. “The proposed tool has several advantages … including minimal risk of pest evolution, tailored microbiome diversity to increase ecosystem resilience and productivity and probiotics that can increase algal productivity and outgrow pests,” according to LLNL
The funding is a small sliver of the DOE’s awarding of $18 million to universities and organizations for the development of valuable bioproducts and biofuels from algae. The six projects are an attempt at price reduction for algae-based biofuels to less than $5 per gasoline gallon equivalent, according to the DOE. By 2030, the agency hopes to achieve a target of $3 per gasoline gallon equivalent.
Algae, according to the department, can also be used to make other products, including industrial chemicals, bio-based polymers and proteins.
Producing algae and co-products for energy
According to the DOE, Producing Algae and Co-Products for Energy, consisting of the Colorado School of Mines, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Resilieance Industries Ltd., and others will receive up to $9 million “to enhance overall algal biofuels sustainability by maximizing carbon dioxide, nutrient, and water recovery and recycling, as well as bio-power go-generation.”
The project, according to the Colorado School of Mines, will use research from Matthew Posewitz, an associate professor of chemistry and geochemistry.
Marine algae industrialization consortium
The DOE will award Duke Univ. $5.2 million to lead a consortium, including Univ. of Hawaii, Cornell Univ., developer of algae-based products Cellana and others “to produce protein-based human and poultry nutritional products along with hydrotreated algal oil extract,” according to the DOE.
According to Cellana, the residual biomass from algae oil processing is capable of being an alternative high-grade protein source for both aquaculture and livestock feed. This could lead to the “production of healthier Omega-3 steaks from algae-fed cattle that can be as healthy to eat as salmon.”
Other projects, as outlined by the DOE, include the following:
- Global Algae Innovations: Up to $1 million “to increase algal biomass yield by deploying an innovative system to absorb carbon dioxide from the flue gas of a nearby power plant.”
- Arizona State Univ.: Up to $1 million “for atmospheric carbon dioxide capture, enrichment, and delivery to increase biomass productivity.”
- Univ. of California, San Diego: Up to $760,000 “to develop an automated early detection system that can identify and characterize infestation or infection of an algae production pond in order to ensure crop health.”
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