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Agile algae

2:04 PM  Jun 17th, 2014
by Debbie Juniewicz ’90

UD has proven that what proliferates in your kid’s fish tank can also survive the deep freeze of a polar vortex. The Research Institute’s new outdoor modular algae system holds promise for alleviating environmental and energy ills by taking the solution to the point of pollution. In the process, we’re growing young minds with some of the most innovative ideas in the algae industry.

The green, slimy film might make you think twice about taking a dip in the pond — even on the hottest summer day — and it makes cleaning out the aquarium a time-consuming chore.

But algae are emerging as one of the most promising renewable energy sources in decades. The tiny organisms pack a big punch for challenges ranging from climate change to economic security.

Scientists and students at the University of Dayton Research Institute have taken the research a step further by creating a new way to grow algae — adjacent to the source of pollution and no matter the weather. This modular algae system, they say, can significantly reduce carbon emissions headed for the atmosphere, creating a new solution to a growing problem while growing a new generation of problem-solvers equipped to address issues from foreign oil dependence to water

“This is all about cleaner air, cleaner water and cleaner energies,” said Sukh Sidhu, head of UDRI’s Energy Technologies and Materials Division and professor of mechanical engineering.

UDRI has been performing research on algae and developing and testing algae-growing systems for pollution control and alternative energies since 2009. That’s when it received a $980,000 pollution-reduction contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory Materials and Manufacturing Directorate. In all, Air Force funding to UDRI for algae research and development totals $3.5 million.

Algae are among Earth’s oldest living organisms, but only recently have they been cultivated on a large scale for fuel, feed and food. Algae are photosynthetic organisms that occur in most habitats, from marine and freshwater to desert sands. They vary greatly in size from single-celled to complex multicellular forms; kelp, the largest algae, can grow to be 200-feet long. And, according to the department of botany at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, algae are found in fossil records dating back
3 billion years.

Fast-forward from Precambrian times to the modern day, and the many benefits of algae are coming to light. From their rapid growth to their ability to store energy in the forms of oils and carbohydrates, algae are among the most promising long-term sustainable sources of biomass and oils for fuel and food.

As oil crops, the unassuming green organisms are hundreds of times more viable
than corn, soybeans and canola, according to Sidhu. Compared with corn yields of 20 gallons of oil per acre, the “fattest” varieties of algae — those with the highest lipid contents — have the potential to yield more than 14,000 gallons of oil per acre, 700 times the yield of corn.

“You would need to take every single acre of food and nonfood cropland that exists in the United States today, multiply it by eight and dedicate it solely to corn to produce enough corn-based ethanol to meet even half of the nation’s transport fuel needs,” Sidhu said. “But only 1 percent of the equivalent of existing acreage would be needed to produce the same amount of biodiesel, jet fuel and ethanol from algae.”

Producing the highly desirable oil is one benefit. But if algae can be grown year-round near the source of air pollution, algae have the potential to be major players in carbon
dioxide sequestration.

Despite their widespread abundance, algae are actually fragile — vulnerable to fluctuations in weather and temperature, which has been a limiting factor for researchers and commercial growers alike. Despite an unseasonably long and cold winter in southwest Ohio, UDRI has been producing a high volume of algae in a new, outdoor system.

“This is a fully automated, closed system designed to operate 24/7, 365, regardless of the weather,” Sidhu said. “Our goal was to design and build an economical and efficient system that could be constructed or implemented anywhere, easily assembled and operated in any climate, and we’ve done just that.”

Initial research focused on testing varieties of algae as well as conditions needed for optimal production. UDRI researchers discovered that there were no “best strains” of algae, rather that variables like weather and temperature were key factors in producing a high yield. Certain strains do, however, respond differently to these variables.

“That’s why most systems are open, such as natural or man-made ponds, and found in warmer climates,” Sidhu said. “And that’s why our system is different. It will operate in any location, regardless of season or climate.”

Operating in this year’s very cold weather — including 11 days of below-zero temperatures — was a concern, said Moshan Kahandawala, the program’s principal investigator.

“The unusually cold ambient temperatures experienced in the Miami Valley were particularly challenging,” he said. They found strains of algae that could grow to approximately 5 degrees Celsius, but below freezing they had to create methods to prevent the
water from freezing.

“Ideally we would rely on waste heat from a CO2 source, but in our case we relied on a boiler to provide and simulate the waste heat needed to make it through the winter at our outdoor facility,” he said.

The UDRI system is a low-energy, high-throughput photobioreactor. Each module fits in a space equivalent to about a dozen parking spaces. The size and number of modules in a given system can be scaled depending on biomass, biofuel and carbon capture requirements of a particular site.

Water and algae are added to the photobioreactor tubes and, because the tubes are clear, algae process light through photosynthesis to grow. A number of factors can affect growth and biomass yield. One is the gas liquid exchange — the balance between carbon dioxide consumed and oxygen released to maintain high growth rates. Others include lighting, water pH, temperature and the algae species selected.

As algae grow, their density increases. The thicker the algae, the less light is available at the center of the tubes, and growth plateaus. Then it’s time to harvest. Algae and water are separated. The separated water is re-circulated into the photobioreactor for reuse. The harvested algae can have many uses, including oil extraction, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals (health food), bioenergy and cosmetics coloring.

UDRI’s system is less expensive to operate than similar systems and, according to Sidhu, is already producing algae at or above the target rate established by the U.S. Department of Energy for 2022 — 50 grams of algae biomass per meter squared per day.

“It’s a beautifully symbiotic system — algae feed on carbon dioxide and convert it to a highly desirable oil, which accounts for as much as 70 percent of the organism’s body weight in some strains,” Sidhu said. “So, we capture carbon dioxide from stacks of coal boilers and other combustion processes before it is released into the atmosphere and run it through algae growing systems.”

Other pollutants can also be captured and run through the system to benefit the algae and the environment. Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients that are natural parts of aquatic ecosystems, but too much — from agricultural fertilizer runoff or wastewater treatment plants — can contribute to both air and water pollution. Running this water through the algae can reduce the need for expensive water treatments. When harvested, algae can be used as fertilizer itself.

And then there’s the oil-producing ability Sidhu mentioned. Algae store energy in the form of oil and carbohydrates. These can be extracted chemically or mechanically — such as by pressing — allowing the oil to be used to create biofuels such as biodiesel, ethanol, biojet fuel and “green gasoline.”

And, when you’re done, the dried algal biomass can be pelletized and used as fuel in industrial boilers.

Change is not an option but a necessity, according to a recent report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control. The IPCC report presented in April, “Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change,” shows global emissions of greenhouse gases have risen at unprecedented levels despite implementation of a growing number of policies designed to reduce climate change. Emissions grew more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades and will need to be slashed by as much as 70 percent by mid-century to keep global temperatures in check, the report states.

“There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual,” said Germany’s Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC working group.

According to the report — which analyzed more than 1,200 scenarios from scientific literature — a substantial financial investment would be needed. But it is possible and economically feasible to avert catastrophic climate change.

“Avoiding further delays in mitigation and making use of a broad variety of technologies can limit the associated costs,” Edenhofer said.

The report doesn’t endorse a single approach but rather a wide range of changes and actions. These include emission reductions from energy production, an overall reduction in energy use and afforestation as well as combining electricity production from biomass and carbon dioxide capture and storage.

The UDRI algae growing system could be an effective alternative to traditional carbon dioxide capture and storage methods.

“We consider this a far better alternative for dealing with CO2 emissions than geosequestration, where carbon dioxide is pumped deep into the earth,” Sidhu said.

Aside from being more cost efficient, UDRI’s growing process is greener — in the environmental sense — than most algae-growing systems, which use chemical fertilizer as a nutrient source.

“Producing algae with fertilizer is expensive and leaves a huge carbon footprint. We use livestock and chicken manure, the same type of nutrient source responsible for the algae blooms at Grand Lake St. Mary’s, Ohio, and other lakes affected by agricultural runoff,” Sidhu said.

Among the team members contributing to the progress of algae research at the University of Dayton are UD students.

One was Nilesh Chavada ’12, whose master’s thesis examined factors that affect algae growth in photobioreactors.

He worked with other team members to assemble the pilot scale system and, more recently, helped construct heat exchangers, critical to sustaining algae during the winter.

“When I graduated, algae and its associated research was the current trend and most sought after,” Chavada said. He now works full time for UDRI as a biomass production engineer.

Algae research has been part of the education for 15 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students since the project began in 2009.

“An effort at this scale requires a significant investment of human capital,” said principal investigator Kahandawala. “Access to students from various science and engineering fields helps look at problems from various perspectives. During their undergraduate years, we have the opportunity to benefit from their curiosity while they benefit from work experience. It also allows senior staff to take on more challenging efforts by delegating day-to-day or previously established activities to students.”

Saikumar Chalivendra ’11 has been working on algae research since he completed his master’s degree requirements in 2009. He is scheduled to complete his dissertation on
algae technology this year.

He said he gained a greater understanding of techniques to most efficiently produce biofuels as well as ways to reduce the cost of otherwise expensive wastewater treatment methods. He also learned analytical skills needed for the next discoveries in the algae field.

“I had the opportunity to provide solutions for real-time industrial problems,” Chalivendra said. “The biotechnology field will have some of the most exciting opportunities over the next 20 years. The work experience I gained from this project helped me to attain the skills and technical knowledge necessary to be placed in the top biotechnology or nutraceutical companies.”

According to Chalivendra, participating in such research projects provides an invaluable experience for all students.

“Undergraduate students usually work in the summer and, during that period, they gain more comprehensive knowledge of the subject under study, without specific applications in mind. They also get the excitement of learning new things in real research,” he said. “For graduate and doctoral students, working on research projects like algae will help students go through individualized training and will create an opportunity to work in a diverse research environment that is rich in intellectual and technical resources.”

This diverse environment includes various disciplines — mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering — and a range of nationalities. At one time, algae group employees hailed from the United States, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Russia, Mexico, Pakistan, Gabon and India, said electrical engineer Anupriya Krishnan ’06.

“Everyone’s styles and backgrounds are different, so it’s such a learning opportunity,” said Krishnan, an electrical engineer who is working on the automation of the algae photobioreactor. “It’s like a baby; you see it from the time it’s crawling — five tubes — to the 80 that are out here.”

Krishnan said UDRI does an excellent job identifying people with potential and providing them with opportunities to learn and grow in new industries, such as algae. Fellow team member Michael Butcher agrees.

“This project has given me the opportunity to broaden my horizons in a new field of work,” said Butcher, a full-time technician for the algae group. “I have worked in other technical industries, but this has been the most satisfying position that I have held.”

According to a recent algae industry survey conducted by the Algae Biomass Organization, the algae industry is growing, from increased production of biomass and oils to increased hiring and development of a wider variety of end products.

The survey, conducted in March 2014, included more than 280 responses from companies and individuals involved in directly producing and buying algae or algae-derived products, as well as equipment manufacturers, research laboratories, providers of equipment or materials, government agencies and service providers. Respondents this year continued their optimism that algae-derived fuels are likely to be price-competitive with fossil fuels by 2020; that production will increase in existing and new facilities; and that improved supportive federal policy would accelerate both the production of algae-based fuels, feeds, fertilizers and other products as well as the number of jobs across the industry. The ABO projects the potential for creation of 220,000 jobs in this sector by 2020.

At UDRI, the next step, after demonstrating the technology — which includes proprietary system designs engineered by Kahandawala — will be to investigate the potential application of a fully operational system at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Then, there is the possibility of commercialization.

“The University of Dayton Research Institute has developed the technology to generate a cost-competitive biofuel intermediate in the United States,” Sidhu says. “We’ve taken it from beakers and jars in the lab to full-size and fully operational modules that can be transitioned to the marketplace for commercial use. And we’re pretty proud of that.”

Debbie Juniewicz is an adjunct professor for the department of communication. She wishes the algae in her daughter’s fish tank could be employed to solve the world’s problems.

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