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Tina Casey headshot

$8 Million for Algae Biofuel from U.S. Department of Energy

By Tina Casey

The low price of petroleum has put a crimp in today's biofuel market, but the U.S. Department of Energy has the long view in its sights. DOE is pushing ahead with another round of $8 million in funding aimed squarely at developing next-generation biofuel from algae, leading to "a bioeconomy that can help create jobs, spur innovation, improve quality of life, and achieve national energy security."

Bioeconomy!? That certainly doesn't sound like any kind of language you'd hear from the Trump Administration, but guess what -- this week DOE is hosting the "Bioeconomy 2017" conference in Arlington, Virginia so let's take closer look at those grants.

From food biofuel to algae biofuel

For those of you new to the biofuel topic, liquid fuel sourced from plants has the potential to be carbon neutral, unlike fossil fuels. That's because plants sequester carbon as part of the carbon cycle.

The problem is that until recently the most cost effective, conventional "energy crops" have also been food crops, like corn and soy. Using food for fuel is not a sustainable practice, so for the past several years researchers have been focusing on extracting cost-effective biofuel from plants that don't compete with food for available land.

Some of these second-generation biofuel crops are grasses and weed-type plants that can be farmed on marginal soils where food crops typically don't thrive.

Algae represents the next step -- a third generation energy crop that does not fit into a conventional farming model.

The $8 million represents the maximum funding available for three algae biofuel projects that made it through the rigorous selection process.

If all goes well, DOE expects this group of projects to deliver "high-impact tools and techniques" that will enable researchers to increase oil production in algae organisms, resulting in improved efficiency and lower costs.

By high-impact, DOE means processes that can be used across the biofuel industry, so that $8 million in funding could end up motivating millions more in private investment.

Three new algae biofuel projects

Part of the funding will go to Lumen Bioscience of Seattle, Washington. The company will partner with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado (NREL), to develop new strains of algae that can thrive in seawater.

The seawater angle would help overcome one major obstacle to a sustainable, low cost algae industry. Typically, algae is cultivated in fresh water. That has already raised water resource issues, which are bound to intensify with population growth, climate change and other pressures.

The challenge is to find strains of algae that can thrive in seawater without becoming contaminated or succumbing to predation.

If Lumen can prevail, the company intends to create new agricultural jobs in rural eastern Washington, where it intends to locate its production facilities.

Another part of the funds will go to Global Algae Innovations of El Cajon, California. Global Algae will take on the challenges of improving algae production in ponds:

Pond ecology has a major impact on algal health and productivity, yet very little is known about the impacts of bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi.

The company will pair up with Sandia National Laboratories, the University of California at San Diego – Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the J. Craig Venter Institute to create a low cost system that will enable researchers to analyze pond ecology. The end goal is to put that information to use for developing new, more efficient ways to cultivate algae in ponds.

Rounding out the trio is Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Better known for its historic work on nuclear technology, under this grant the lab will also tackle pond-grown algae.

The project will take place at a Las Cruces, New Mexico site in partnership with the company  Sapphire Energy. The aim is to reach a better understanding of the way that multiple strains of algae and beneficial bacteria can interact to result in a highly productive environment.

Trump talks up fossil energy, but...

Here's where it gets really interesting. For all the Trump Administration talk about exploiting the nation's fossil resources, somehow the U.S. Department of Energy has managed to keep its sights focused on resource preservation.

The new grants come under the agency's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which garnered this description in a DOE press release announcing the three awards (emphasis mine):

The Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) accelerates research and development of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies and innovative solutions that strengthen U.S. energy security and economic vitality, while preserving our natural resources.

Combined with the reference to bioeconomy, the wording is particularly interesting considering that the Trump Administration brought on fossil fuel lobbyist Daniel Simmons to head EERE.

For all his background in the fossil industry, Simmons seems to have had next to no impact on EERE programs, or on the Energy Department's messaging about renewables.

Except for a lull last week while federal budget hearings were under way -- during which time Energy Secretary Rick Perry insisted on positioning climate change denial as a legitimate form of skepticism -- DOE has been pumping out good news about renewables at a furious pace.

This week Perry seems to be making up for lost time. The agency's official @ENERGY Twitter account was even more active than usual on Monday, with a healthy dose of renewable energy news capped by a video salute from Perry to NREL in recognition of its 40th anniversary.

Most interesting of all was a tweet linking to a new Oak Ridge National Laboratory computer model aimed at advancing the study of climate change.

Yes, climate change:

A new integrated computational model reduces uncertainty in climate predictions by bridging Earth systems with energy and economic models and large-scale human impact data. Co-developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the novel integrated Earth system model, or iESM, leverages the power of supercomputers, including ORNL’s Titan, to couple biospheric feedbacks from oceans, atmosphere and land with human activity, such as greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture and land use.

As described by Oak Ridge, the new model “provides comprehensive predictions of projected climate outcomes, eliminating important sources of uncertainty from those predictions.”

The big question is, how does Perry keep getting away with this? Although he toes the Trump Administration line in public appearances, he has consistently supported his agency's renewable energy programs.

DOE and its network of offices and laboratories have also not been shy about discussing climate change, and the DOE website still includes a comprehensive page dedicated to climate change.

The climate change page leads off with this observation:

Addressing the effects of climate change is a top priority of the Energy Department. As global temperatures rise, wildfires, drought, and high electricity demand put stress on the nation’s energy infrastructure. And severe weather -- the leading cause of power outages and fuel supply disruption in the United States -- is projected to worsen, with eight of the 10 most destructive hurricanes of all time having happened in the last 10 years.

The next time you see Perry accommodating climate change deniers, look behind his back -- he might have his fingers crossed!

In the meantime, look forward to the sustainable bioeconomy of the future -- and look forward, at least for the time being, to continued Trump Administration support for renewable energy initiatives that took form under the Obama Administration.

Photo (cropped): via @ENERGY on twitter.com.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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