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Algae research funds position Ariz. to be global leader

September 28, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was chosen as one of ASU's highlights from 2010. Look here for a look back at some of the year's most prized stories.

Gov. Jan Brewer has dedicated $2 million to support Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz) and Arizona State University’s joint efforts in propelling the state into a green economy through algal research and development.

Brewer made the announcement in front of more than 600 of the world’s leading energy scientists and industry representatives attending the Algal Biomass Organization’s national conference, taking place in Phoenix this week.

“Our state has the potential to be a national and global leader in algae research and biotechnology, reducing America’s dependence on fossil fuel while increasing opportunities in a new industry that will create promising new jobs for Arizonans,” Brewer said. “Science Foundation Arizona funded early state work in algal research; now combined with excellence at ASU, our state will build on this important research and commercialization opportunity.”

In awarding the funding, Brewer called on Science Foundation Arizona to lead the state effort in support of the new Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI).

SFAz and ASU also discussed at the conference the creation of this world-class center dedicated to researching and bringing to fruition green technologies using algae.

The center, which will be funded and administered in part by SFAz and managed by ASU, will be located at ASU’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa. AzCATI will partner with the rapidly growing algae industry to drive Arizona into the forefront of innovation in biofuels and bio-product research and development.

AzCATI will serve as a statewide and international intellectual and resource hub for algae-based goods; find innovative commercial uses for algae; operate as a learning environment for next-generation scientists; facilitate collaboration between higher education, industry and national entities; and be a national “test bed” for algae technology.

“The innovations of scientists following the trail of a simple idea often lead to incredible discoveries that have a real impact on the world,” said William C. Harris, president and CEO of SFAz. “The AzCATI has the potential to be so much more than a hub for algae research and development – it will serve as inspiration for diversifying Arizona’s economy and providing opportunity for the scientists of the future.”

The work of ASU's College of Technology and Innovation researchers Milton Sommerfeld and Qiang Hu on algae-to-jet fuel made Time Magazine’s list of best inventions in 2008 and was cited by the Wall Street Journal as one of the “Five Technologies That Could Change Everything” in 2009. The two researchers’ progress led to the formation of Heliae Development, LLC, an aviation fuel company working to bring algae-based kerosene and other products to market.

“ASU has emerged as one of the leading national centers on algae research,” said Rick Shangraw, senior vice president for Knowledge Enterprise Development at ASU. “ASU has the research expertise and capabilities to influence advances in algal technologies to realize large-scale production of algae-derived fuel in the near future.”

Since 2007, SFAz has funded algal research at ASU that has produced promising and economically viable results, including the use of specially grown algae to make jet fuel. Like many other plant organisms, algae are a rich source of lipids (fats or oils) and proteins containing valuable properties that can be extracted to make other high value products, such as livestock feed and food additives.

”This food and fuel technology, which will eventually have a significant reduction on our reliance of fossil fuels, can be made cost-efficient through the research partnership that has been established through SFAz, ASU and Heliae,” said Frank Mars, coordinating investor in Heliae.  “It is critical that we work to bring these real-world solutions to market, where they can be utilized on a large scale.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), algae are capable of producing more oil per acre than soybeans, currently the leading source of biodiesel in the country. Additionally, algae do not compete with conventional agriculture, are capable of recycling carbon dioxide from power plants and are compatible with current fuel refinery processes.

In July, the DOE awarded ASU a $6 million grant as part of a program focused on algae-based biofuels. The ASU-led group, one of three research groups the DOE funded to tackle key hurdles in the commercialization of algae-based biofuels, will focus on testing the acceptability of algal biofuels as replacements for petroleum-derived fuels.

 “With investments by the state, federal and commercial entities in the development of next generation biofuel technologies, the ideal climate and vast available land, Arizona is poised to become the algae capital of the country,” said Gary Dirks, director of ASU's LightWorks, a multidisciplinary initiative designed to leverage light-based research, particularly in renewable energy fields.