New Algae Testing Facility Supports Advancements in Real-World Biofuel Applications

A new algae raceway testing facility at Sandia National Laboratories is helping researchers bring the promise of algal biofuels closer to reality.

“This facility helps bridge the gap from the lab to the real world by giving us an environmentally controlled raceway that we can monitor to test and fine tune discoveries,” Ben Wu, Sandia’s biomass science and conversion technology manager, said in a Feb. 2 statement.

A raceway is a shallow artificial pond used for cultivating algae. According to Sandia, algae are an ideal source of biomass, but researchers have yet to find a cost-competitive way to use algae for fuels.

“The success of moving technologies from a research lab to large outdoor facilities is tenuous,” Wu said. “The scale-up from flask to a 150,000-liter outdoor raceway pond is just too big.”

Sandia said that the new algae testing facility includes three 1,000-liter raceway ponds that provide new advantages to researchers, such as:

  • Easy scale-up to larger, outdoor raceways
  • Customizable lighting and temperature controls, operational by year end, to simulate the conditions of locations across the country
  • Full containment for testing genetic strains and crop protection strategies
  • Advanced hyperspectral monitoring 24 hours a day

Sandia said that several ongoing projects will use the algae raceway right away. For example, researchers Todd Lane and Anne Ruffing will test genetically modified algae strains as part of a project funded by Sandia’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program. According to Sandia, the algae raceway will allow the researchers to more quickly identify strains that promise improved performance.

In addition, Lane is part of a project partnership with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory funded by the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) that is investigating a probiotic approach to algae crop protection. Another BETO project seeks to convert algae proteins into useful chemical compounds such as butanol.

 “The bioeconomy is gaining momentum,” Wu said. “Biofuels from algae may be further off, but algae has sugar and proteins that can make fuel or higher valued products, such as butanol or nylon — products that currently come from fossil fuels.”

Lead image: One of the three 1,000-liter ponds, outfitted with custom lighting and 24-hour advanced hyper spectral monitoring. Credit: Sandia.

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