Several University of Arizona researchers are part of a consortium that has just received a U.S. Department of Energy grant totaling more than $44 million that is intended to bring more sustainable and economically sound algae-based biofuels to market.
The federal agency announced on Wednesday that nearly $80 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would be awarded to the National Advanced Biofuels Consortium, or NABC, and the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts, or NAABB, of which the UA is a founding member.
The National Advanced Biofuels Consortium will receive up to $33.8 million, and the federal agency also reported that grants to both groups would be matched by the private sector and cost-share funds.
"This is really exciting, and it's a great project because of all the expertise being brought together – from the private sectors, universities and national labs," said Michael A. Cusanovich, a UA Regents' Professor Emeritus and one of the investigators with NAABB.
Kimberly Ogden, a UA chemical and environmental engineering professor, will serve as the University's principal investigator and also head of the alliance's engineering efforts.
"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," Ogden said.
"We're looking at the whole thing," she said, "from growing algae to putting fuel in your tank."
Overall, the two consortium groups are charged with studying and developing ways to create advanced biofuels from algae that would then be mass produced for transportation while also boosting the nation's bio-industry.
"We're pulling all this expertise together to address the broad problem, which is to make an economically viable biofuel," said Cusanovich, also a UA biochemical and molecular biophysics professor who directs the Arizona Research Laboratories.
"This grant has a number of fundamental components ranging from discovery to identifying new strains of algae that can be optimized for fuel production," he added. "And we're talking about developing systems that would be able to generate billions of gallons a year.
U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu said advanced biofuels are a key factor in establishing a clean energy economy.
"By harnessing the power of science and technology, we can bring new biofuels to the market and develop a cleaner and more sustainable transportation sector," Chu said in a statement.
"This investment will help spur the creation of the domestic bio-industry, while creating jobs and reducing our dependence on foreign oil," he added.
The consortium's $44 million grant will be held by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri to facilitate the development of a systems approach that will allow for the sustainable commercialization of algal biofuel – renewable gasoline, diesel and jet fuel – and bioproducts.
Among the issues NAABB's members will consider and address are the costs of mass producing biofuels, the use of resources, greenhouse gas emissions and commercial viability, the federal agency noted.
The UA's contribution will be multifaceted, involving a range of individuals focusing on water usage and quality issues, biology, reactor design and other topics. For example, Cusanovich is part of a group working under a provisional patent that would enable the growth of algae in raceways.
At fruition, the algae would be grown year-round in temperature-controlled environments that would lead to biofuels being offered at competitive prices, Cusanovich said.
"You can imagine having thousands of these all over the place," he said.
In addition to Cusanovich and Ogden, others at the UA working on collaborative projects under the grant are: Robert Arnold, a chemical and environmental engineering professor; Paul Blowers, a chemical and environmental engineering associate professor; Judith Brown, a plant science professor; Joel Cuello, an agriculture and biosystems engineering professor; Leslie Gunatilaka, an arid lands professor; Istvan Molnar, an associate professor of arid lands; Mark Riley, head of the agricultural and biosystems engineering department; and Peter Waller, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering.