LightWorks Blog

Monday, September 26, 2011

Arizona is famous (or infamous) for its dry, desert climate, and abundance of sun and land. This also makes it a prime location for farming algae. Additionally, because of the state’s coal-fired power plants, there is currently a mass quantity of carbon dioxide that will help enhance algae growth and production.

Algae production, as opposed to some biofuels, has a higher yield from fewer resources, and it can be farmed on non-potable land (unlike corn used for ethanol). Scientists have known for some time that algae are rich in lipids and oils that can be extracted and converted to fuel. ASU researchers have discovered certain algal strains that are particularly rich in oils and have built more efficient bioreactors to harvest those strains. The bioreactors are filled with water, nutrients, and algae; when exposed to the sun, algae growth is accelerated. These bioreactors can be found on a variety of buildings on both the Tempe and Polytechnic campuses along with the Intel Ocotillo facility in Chandler. ASU researchers have also begun developing methods to use algae for biodiesel and jet biofuel.

Photo Credit: ASU

ASU’s AzCati facility and Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology (LARB) have received several million dollars in grants from a variety of sources including Science Foundation Arizona, Heliae Development, and the Department of Energy.

In 2009, the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) rated Phoenix, AZ as the top potential place for algal biofuel production in the United States.

Last year’s Algal Biomass Summit (ABO) drew about 800 of the world’s leading industry representatives and energy scientists to showcase algal research right in the prominent algal-fuel research hub that is Phoenix.

ASU’s Bruce Rittman, director of the Center of Environmental Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute says the technology needed to mass-produce algae technology is about 4 or 5 years away, but the U.S. infrastructure required to make algae a major fuel source is about 15 to 20 years away. However, Rittman notes that when the U.S. is finally poised to begin using algae as a major fuel source, Arizona will reap great benefits.

Photo Credit: ASU

Rittman also says, “There is a growing realization in this country and around the world of the importance of sustainability. We have to shift away from fossil fuels, especially petroleum. There are skeptics who say biofuels are too expensive, but when you factor in things like climate change and the eventual cost of that, we don’t look expensive at all.”

What Rittman draws attention to is the necessity for continued research and development so that researchers are able to find ways to drop the current cost of algae biofuel from $20 per gallon to $4 or $5 per gallon. Costs alone are not isolated to production. If we factor in military pursuits, costs of human lives, and the various effects on climate and the environment, the cost of oil is much higher than often reported, and these factors should be reflected in comparisons because those externalities come at a price.

ASU researchers continue to develop new technology and methodologies for algal biofuel. Algae biofuel production offers a sustainable, renewable energy source with great potential, and Arizona is the prime locale in which to produce it.

Learn more about ASU’s algae research facilities, researchers, and presence at the upcoming ABO Summit in Minneapolis, MN.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Photo Credit: TechRockies

Founded in 2008, Heliae is a Gilbert, Arizona based spinout company of Arizona State University. The firm is commercializing algae biofuels research originally developed at ASU, and was spun into ASU’s SkySong Innovation Center specifically to develop algae-based jet fuels.

According to Heliae, they are “an algae technology development company pioneering innovative solutions that aim to solve the biggest problems facing humans and the planet.” They offer algae solutions for both world energy problems and food market issues, and they produce a variety of renewable, drop-in fuel, food, and bio-chemical products.

Heliae’s process requires no arable land; it uses up CO2, and flourishes on non-potable wastewater. Their technology imitates nature at an industrial scale, transcending concepts of net energy balance thus creating more value per acre than alternative approaches to bio-energy.

The company commits itself to overcoming global economic and environmental limitations with sustainable, affordable, and local bio-based algae products and technology. Their motto? “Food and Fuel, Forever.”

Last week, Heliae issued a press release naming Craig Johnson as its new CFO. Johnson had served as the company’s VP of Finance since March 2011. “I look forward to keeping the momentum going as Heliae prepares and positions itself to capitalize on its technological success by delivering commercially viable algae production solutions to market,” said Johnson.

Heliae is partnered with Arizona State University, Science Foundation Arizona, Algal Biomass Organization, and Wageningen University.

Learn more about this exciting algal company at

Monday, September 12, 2011

Photo Credit: ASU News

ASU student Joshua Wray is receiving accolades and funding for his work in producing fertilizer from algae biomass that is harvested for biofuel at ASU Polytechnic’s AzCATI facilities. Wray is a doctoral student pursuing a degree in molecular and cellular biology. Along with fellow graduate students Martha Kent and Emil Puruhito, Wray has secured funding by way of the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, a grant that will supply office space, funds, and training to produce an organic, sustainable fertilizer from algae.

Wray’s work with algal biofuel has led not only to the creation of a sustainable algae fertilizer but in finding innovations for new bioreactor designs. He submitted a proposal for a new waste water management design to the National Water Research Institute (NRWI) and was awarded a $5000 fellowship for two years.

Speaking about the award Wray said, “I am very excited for being chosen as an NWRI fellowship recipient. I was glad to see NWRI’s enthusiasm for my project."

The fellowship will supplement his dissertation research and allow him to collect data in both the field and real world conditions by developing new technology. Wray is excited about the growing algae field and hopes that his research will contribute to its further development including the possibilities it offers in job creation and economic growth.

“I have always been a technical person and interested in learning something new, which happens every day in the LARB, but it is also important to me to have my work be directly applicable in the real world, which my Edson Venture and NWRI projects let me do,” Wray said.

Congratulations to Joshua Wray for his awards and for his contributions to a burgeoning area of algae research!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Algae research is on the rise at many universities around the country. Although funding is scarce, knowledge and persistence is abundant in many different colleges. Their determination to turn algae into biofuels is something that should be recognized within their communities and throughout the nation. Each day, these colleges are making history and getting us one step closer to a clean energy future. Let's take a closer look at universities who are stepping up and becoming role models in the algae research biz.


Friday, August 5, 2011

In the small Navajo town of Nataanii, Arizona there sits a white orb. It is a bioenergy dome, an anonymous gift given to the Navajo people. The dome is a second prototype of its kind created by Oregon-based Pacific Domes International. The dome offers sustainable solutions for both food and energy.

Photo Credit: Terra Noticias

Here is how it works: the algae and duckweed create biomass through solar energy conversion. The dome itself maintains an interior “eternal springtime” climate and has consistent, natural sunlight. Harvested plants are composted through a methane digester, and the methane is fed into a noise-free “Bear Genset” which then converts the thermal heat into kW energy. The by-products are cycled back into the dome as plant fertilizer. The only emissions, CO2 and water vapor, are also cycled back into the dome as plant food. The dome only requires an hour of maintenance once or twice per day and can be adjusted to fit specific energy needs. Additionally, inventor Rudy Behrens was a recipient of the “Best Renewable Energy Award” at the New Jersey Technology Council Venture Conference.

The Navajo Bioenergy Dome is already producing astonishing results. The pod is completely self-sustaining, and when used at full capacity, the dome has the ability to produce about 11 pounds of organic vegetables per day, about 100-150 pounds of fish per year, and enough methane to power a modern home. There are multileveled trays of hydroponic vegetables used to supply food for fish in the pond. The fish farm, unlike most, is self-cleaning and does not require chemicals. Together, the fish and vegetables supply a clean and consistent food source for the reservation.

Photo Credit: Truman Anderson

Rex Lee Jim, Vice President of the Navajo Nation, is excited about the opportunities the dome presents. He hopes it will bring a more ancestral diet to the reservation, and provide a way to move younger people away from junk food while also creating a renewable, sustainable power source.



Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Recently, Intel received Silver LEED certification for a project they developed with ASU and algae researchers at the ASU Polytechnic campus. They put photobioreactors on the roof of Intel’s Ocotillo facility in Chandler, AZ to capture flue gasses (CO2) in an effort to grow algae for research purposes. The following transcription is from an e-mail interview with Brad Biddle for Triple Pundit. Brad leads the Intel side of the project.

Q: How many algae crops have been grown and harvested?

A: For this phase of the project we grew algae until the bioreactors were at maximum capacity then harvested all of it. Next week we start round two. During this next phase, the plan is to do continual harvesting—that is, we’ll harvest a portion of the algae, let it grow back to full capacity, and repeat. Continual harvesting is the model we’d likely use if the approach were adopted on a larger scale.


Q: Who makes the algae into biofuel? How much biofuel can be made from a single crop?

A: It takes a lot of algae to make a meaningful amount of fuel—much more than we grew in this initial proof-of-concept phase. After drying, the amount of algae grown in this initial phase doesn’t amount to more than a couple of softball-sized handfuls, and even the best strains of algae are only about 40% oil. So far we’re talking test tubes, not gas tanks—but we hope to get there.


Q: Has Intel seen the entire algae-biofuel process through from beginning to end yet?

A: Our partners at ASU’s Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology (LARB) have made fuel from algae oil, so there’s no question that it can be done. We’ve been using our current small amount of algae for lab testing rather than fuel, though. Once we have a sufficient quantity of algae oil from our process, LARB could certainly do the conversion to fuel. I also hope to take a sample of our algae oilto a local biodiesel co-op and have them do the ocnversion process from raw algae oil to biodiesel. The co-op currently makes biodiesel from waste vegetable oil (restaurant grease), but their process would work on algae oil as well. We plan to show vehicles driving on biodiesel made from our algae.


Q: How did Intel partner with ASU and what roles did each play?

A: On the proof-of-concept side, Intel brought a vision for the project, a willingness to experiment, and infrastructure and logistics support. The ASU LARB team did the hard parts—building the ioreactors, managing the algae growth, and leading the data collection efforts. The LARB team is world famous for their algae expertise, and certainly the project couldn’t have been done without them.


On the policy side, representatives from Intel and from ASU Law worked together to analyze various regulatory questions. This focus on both scientific and policy issues is a unique aspect of this project, I believe.


From the beginning, our goal for this project has been to be highly open and highly collaborative. We want to openly share what we learn, with a focus on trying to drive broad global benefits.


In this video, Brad Biddle further discusses the algae bioreactor project.



Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Welcome to the ASU LightWorks blog. In an effort to adhere to the multidisciplinary framework of light-inspired research, we’ll be using this space to post all sorts of renewable energy-related material including people profiles, interviews, and various odds and ends. The purpose of this blog is to add an interactive element to the LightWorks site where readers like you can get more hands on with the material and where we can answer any questions you may have. Comments and discussions are welcome and encouraged. Let us know if there is anything you’d like to see, and feel free to connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.



Monday, January 9, 2012

Arizona State University (ASU) and the University of Arizona (UA) have joined forces through ASU’s AzCATI facilities to expand algae biofuel research through the ARID Raceway open test bed site located in Tucson.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Anticipating the growth and success of algae farming in Arizona, Tucson lawmaker Rep. Matt Heinz of Arizona District 29 has introduced two bills (HB 2225 and HB 2226), sponsored by Rep. Russ Jones of Arizona District 24, that will commercialize and tax alga-culture like any other farm-produced product and allow Arizona universities to continue research in biofuel technologies.