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Algae-to-Fuel Research Enjoys Resurgence at NREL

April 22nd, 2009 | No Comments | Posted in Algae-Biodiesel, Algae-Fuel-Research

You are at: Oilgae Blog.

At the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, researchers are accelerating efforts to identify and characterize the most promising strains of algae for fuel production. The work has resumed more than a decade after its original algae fuels program was curtailed because the fuels were considered too costly to compete with petroleum.

Today, NREL has resumed that work, while putting a greater emphasis on understanding their basic biology. When these microalgae are starved of the nutrients they need, their lipid content can increase as much as 60%.

NREL and Chevron Corporation (NYSE: CVX) are working under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) in which NREL is boosting microalgae’s productivity. Chevron anticipates using the resulting oil as a feedstock for renewable transportation fuels.

But not every strain contains all the qualities required to produce algae fuel–growing fast, growing fat and tolerating a wide variety of conditions.

And, different strains have evolved under different conditions in different locales. It’s unlikely, Darzins says, that one strain would be used nationwide because of regional differences in climate and water.

“We’ve only begun to scratch the surface,” Darzins said. “We need to understand the lipid pathways and what regulates their lipid production and growth.”

Currently NREL’s algae experiments are limited to 1-liter flasks under fluorescent light. When renovations to the greenhouse at the Field Test Laboratory Building are completed, algae strains can be tested in 75 gallon batches under natural light conditions, which can be 10 times more intensive than artificial lighting.

“Some strains that look good now may not maximize photosynthesis when we scale up or expose them to natural light,” Darzins said.

Within a few years, Darzins hopes to complete construction of new outdoor ponds behind the FTLB that will test algae strains, production systems and harvesting methods at scales up to 100 acres.

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