Algae: From Raceway to Runway

Opportunities for Renewable Energy and Economic Development

Biofuels and biopower will soon play a significant role in providing energy for the United States. Key components of a successful agriculture-based bioenergy industry are securing an economical and environmentally sustainable supply of biomass, creating value-added coproduct streams, and improving delivery logistics. With its high oil content, algae garners interest for production of diesel and jet fuel as well as other bioproducts, and it can be produced using underutilized land with brackish water. Algae is also biodegradable.

In 2007, General Atomics and Texas AgriLife Research formed a strategic, collaborative alliance to research, develop, and commercialize biofuel production through farming microalgae in Texas and California. The U.S. Department of Defense awarded a multi-year grant to General Atomics and AgriLife Research for algae research and development. Soon after, Texas AgriLife Research, with General Atomics as a partner, was awarded a $4 million grant from the State of Texas Emerging Technology Fund to develop an algae test facility at the Texas AgriLife Research Pecos (Texas) Research Station. These two grants provided impetus that led to additional funding, from the Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Energy, for commercialization of algae production. Additional funding was awarded in large part as a result of research advancements at the Pecos facility and expands the project scope to include algal coproducts, such as feed additives for the livestock and mariculture industries.

Through collaborations with the military and major universities, AgriLife Research and General Atomics are also expanding their efforts in cellulosic-derived biofuels and bio-oil production processes. And they are working to demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale biofuels production from wastewater treatment facilities, using a combination of algae and microorganisms, for applications throughout the world.

With technical support from General Atomics, Texas AgriLife Research constructed and operates the Pecos Algae Research and Development Facility. At their headquarters in San Diego, General Atomics made major research, development, and commercialization commitments, building a world-class microalgae facility. Together, these two lead organizations have built a team of the most advanced industry, university, national laboratory, and government partners synergistically working on development of this technology. In Pecos, the goal of this phased research and development program is to develop and demonstrate algae growth and harvesting techniques and bio-oil extraction processes that can be commercially scaled and economically replicated in the Southwestern desert regions of the U.S. for industrial production of biofuels.

High-Yielding, Cost-Effective, Sustainable Alternative Fuels

Energy efficiency, new energy systems, conservation, and advanced conversion processes are all part of the equation for energy independence. Coastal production of microalgae for biofuels presents another significant opportunity. Projects at the AgriLife Research Mariculture Laboratory in Corpus Christi are designed to establish and optimize a cost-effective prototype system for high-density microalgae in open systems (raceways), using seawater and flue gas carbon dioxide captured from power-generating plants. In production, large-scale microalgae systems annexed to power-generating plants could effectively reduce carbon dioxide emissions while producing a range of high-value products.

In College Station and Galveston, Texas AgriLife researchers focus on determining characteristics of algae species to increase the oil content and on the economic analysis of microalgae and potential bioproducts. Through innovative, science-based programs, expertise, infrastructure, and partnerships, General Atomics and the Texas AgriLife Research Bioenergy Program are leading the way in developing alternative fuel solutions.

Research Components

  • Algae Coproducts for Animal Feed
  • Economics
  • Propagation Laboratories
  • Separation Techniques
  • Construction and Installation
  • Microalgae Raceway Production

At the Pecos Algae Research and Development Facility, research in bioenergy and bioproducts spans the full range of discovery:

  • Developing high-tonnage biomass plants at the molecular level and more efficient processes in the manufacturing of biofuels
  • Testing algae under various conditions for maximum growth and oil production
  • Investigating harvesting methods to reduce operating costs
  • Transportation for bioenergy production, including environmental aspects
  • Using modeling to determine economic and sustainable production areas
  • Tracking of all unit costs to determine cost per kilogram of biomass

Commercial microalgae farms in West Texas would generate significant employment opportunities and dramatically enhance economic activity. Additionally, the economic viability of microalgae is enhanced by all aspects of production, including coproducts. Deriving value from post-extraction algal residues is also essential to the overall economic sustainability of algal fuel production.

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