UT Leads Algae Research Through Commercialization, Collaboration

There are few places in the world more equipped at harnessing the potential of algae than The University of Texas at Austin.

Rhykka Connelly stands in the lab

Rhykka Connelly, technical director of CEM's National Algae Science and Technology Facility.

The algae arrive from all over the country, sometimes from around the world. It arrives in containers as small as a test tube or as large as a trailer. Their senders want to know a few things, mainly: what species of algae is in the tiny sample, what's the most optimal way to grow it, and how much oil is trapped inside the plant-like organisms?

There are few places in the world more equipped at providing these answers and harnessing the potential of algae than The University of Texas at Austin. With more than 3,000 specimens, the university is home to the largest and most diverse algae collection in the world. And last fall, in partnership with the Austin startup AlgEternal Technologies, the university opened a large algae growth demonstration facility for biofuels. The facility opened itself this month to public and private research partners who want to use the facilities for analyzing, growing and harvesting algae – a promising green source for fuel, fertilizers, food and more. Located adjacent to the university's Center for Electromechanics (CEM), the facility can grow the test tube size algae samples to almost 15,000 gallons. CEM researchers then use proprietary and game-changing technology developed at the university to break open the algae, extract its oil and process it for commercial use.

"To solve the challenge of re-inventing oil recovery from algae requires a team of experts. Over the course of our multi-year program at UT, we have accessed more expertise than a company our size could possibly afford to bring in house," said Dr. Peter Kipp, vice president of OpenAlgae, an Austin-based startup that funded research at the university to develop novel algae processing technologies invented by university researchers.

Both AlgEternal Technologies and OpenAlgae are guiding, participating in and benefiting from the university's knowledge and demonstrated success in algae research. In the past four years, the university has assembled an interdisciplinary team of researchers whose expertise run the gamut in molecular biology, business, physics and nearly every discipline of engineering. That’s because to take a pond scum like algae and turn it into a viable, mass-produced green source that can fuel our cars, feed livestock and even heal wounds, you need expertise in every step of the process: from identifying the best strains of algae, growing and harvesting them, extracting their oil, processing them for use and exploring uses for the waste byproducts of the process.

"The fossil fuels we use today were given to us by Mother Nature millions of years ago and were naturally formed over the course of thousands of years," said Bob Hebner, director of CEM and a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering. "With algae, it's like we're trying to do that same process in a week. We're trying to fool Mother Nature to grow large quantities of algae and to grow it fast and for cheap; and everyday we're getting closer."

An elusive, but promising green source

Dr. Bob Hebner, director of CEM.

Dr. Bob Hebner, director of CEM. Click to expand.

Algae's ability to naturally produce oil has attracted the interest of engineers and scientists for years, but growing algae at mass and extracting its oil in high yields are difficult, expensive and time consuming. Attempts to scale up growth are hindered by the fact that the more algae you have, the greater the chances for predators, disease and other disruptions that can destroy it. Through research led by Hebner and others like Jerry Brand, a professor in the College of Natural Sciences and director of the university's algae repository, the UTEX Culture Collection of Algae, the research team is getting closer to advancing algae research from a science experiment to a potentially vital part of the economy.

The research group has consulted with more than 35 major, international companies looking to develop and produce algae at large-scale. Among the advantages of collaborating with CEM is that its researchers utilize a full suite of analytical technologies to generate detailed profiles about the algae and its oil potential throughout growth and processing.

In partnership with AlgEternal Technologies, the researchers are working to demonstrate the commercial potential of a new growing technique that is more efficient than current methods. The technique uses hundreds of 12-foot tall tubes to grow algae vertically – rather than letting it grow horizontally, as it would naturally, because such growth requires more water and land and is commercially unviable.

“Large scale, sustained algae growth has been a limiting factor in much of the algae research that has taken place across the country,” said Michael Jochum, chief scientist at AlgEternal Technologies. “Our vertical system essentially takes algae from a farming situation to a manufacturing environment that enables us to have more control over factors such as sunlight, temperature and nutrient distribution that are critical to algae growth. This allows us to grow a significant quantity of algae per acre.”

The tubes, known as Vertical Growth Modules, accelerate growth and allow more light to penetrate the algae cultures than a traditional horizontal pond would, said Rhykka Connelly, technical director of CEM’s National Algae Science and Technology Facility.

The researchers have also developed novel technology that extracts oil from the algae by zapping it with a quick electric pulse. During the pulse, the algae membrane tears open and, in a few millionths of a second, the oil inside squeezes out. The oil droplets are only one tenth the size of a human hair, and – because it's released from the membrane into water – it clings to cell debris. Faculty and students in the Department of Chemical Engineering developed a membrane separator device that easily pulls the oil from the cell debris so it can be processed.

OpenAlgae is now using the technologies in a mobile processing unit it developed with university researchers. Clients can pour their algae slurry into the mobile processor, and the machine separates the oil from the remaining biomass.

"With this system, we can recover up to 90 percent of the oil that's inside the algae," Hebner said.

Because the separation technology is chemical-free, the biomass is not contaminated during the process and can be reused for other purposes. For instance, researchers at the center are working on a university-funded pilot project to use the leftover nutrient-rich biomass as a fertilizer on campus. A site at CEM is being tested first and results from the study will be finished this August.

Research hopes grow

For Hebner and Brand, there’s never been a more exciting time to lead algae research.

Rising gas prices have increased interests in making algae a viable source of fuel. One of the biggest milestones showcasing the potential of algae occurred late last year, when a U.S. passenger flight was the first to fly on a mix of algae biofuel and petroleum-derived jet fuel.

Brand said algae strands have been around forever and most strands of it have been noted only for the problems they cause in lakes and streams. He said he’s glad the potential of algae is finally being recognized.

"Algae have tremendous potential – not just in biofuels, but as feed for animals, pharmaceuticals, and other uses, and I think it's really exciting that algae can be exploited for all of these different purposes," he said.

Algae is grow in bioreactors at CEM.

Algae is grow in bioreactors at CEM. Click to expand.

Researchers still have major hurdles to overcome before oil and other products from algae can be mass-produced, and done so affordably. Among them, they don't know how long it will be before we can grow hundreds of thousands of acres of algae, or whether wastewater can be efficiently used to grow the algae – a sustainable research project that Environmental and Water Resources Engineering Professors Kerry Kinney and Lynn Katz are pursuing.

"But I think we have as strong and broad of expertise in taking algae all the way – from exploiting it, finding new strains, to producing commercial products – than any other institution in the country," Brand said.

For chemical engineering senior Morela Montoya, algae research is "a field of the future" with much promise.

Montoya, who is among the more than 50 students who have helped with the university’s algae research, said attendance at algae conferences has increased in recent years – a testament to the growing momentum around the green sludge.

"This research experience has allowed for the intermingling of disciplines and expertise, and as a chemical engineer I'm learning about aspects of civil engineering and biology and natural sciences that I might not have learned otherwise," Montoya said. "We're all working on this together, and I think this cross-disciplinary work is very unique to the University of Texas. It is helping me learn a great deal, and I think it's helping the future of this field.

still capture of YNN coverage of green algae

VIDEO: UT researchers breaking new ground in biofuels

Watch a video from YNN explaining how researchers at the university and the Cockrell School are searching for alternatives to fossil fuels. Watch video now.