Nov. 29, 2012

Bioreactors for algae-based biofuels get $900K grant

A Cornell research team has received a $910,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to work toward revolutionizing how biofuels are produced from algae.

David Erickson, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Largus Angenent, associate professor of biological and environmental engineering, have teamed up to design and build a completely new type of bioreactor that efficiently delivers light and collects fuel produced by algae inside the reactors.

Their "optofluidic reactor" is one of 66 projects totaling $130 million selected this year for the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy (ARPA-E) program, announced Nov. 28.

The research team benefits from Erickson's expertise in photonics for energy production and Angenent's in bioprocess and bioreactor engineering; the goal is to produce a concept for an ultra-compact biofuel-producing microalgae photobioreactor. Their strategy is to harness the natural process of photosynthesis -- nature's model of sustainable energy generation -- by directly converting carbon dioxide to biofuels using blue-green algae (cyanobacteria).

The prototype reactor will deliver light to algae growing on low-cost, light-guiding sheets and then collect fuel through tiny porous tubes. Unlike conventional algae ponds, this reactor will distribute a nearly ideal amount of sunlight and use minimal water.

Current technologies are limited by conventional reactor design, including poor distribution of light in the reactor, low organism concentrations and large amounts of water and energy consumptions.

All the technological components of the project are already produced industrially at large scales. Erickson and Angenent are working to optimize the individual elements while also performing a detailed economic analysis informing future commercialization. With the demand for biofuel production expected to greatly increase in coming decades, the project should provide a proof-of-concept for an important innovation in bioenergy production.

The work was originally conceived with support from a 2010 seed grant from Cornell's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

ARPA-E funds projects that promise breakthroughs in energy technology, form the foundation for entirely new industries and have large commercial impacts, according to the DOE.

More information is available online.