ASU receives $3 million funding towards research and commercialization of algae-based jet biofuels
Algae tank exhibit at Farnborough Air Show (photo: ASU)
Thu 4 Sept 2008 – Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE), the technology venturing arm of Arizona State University (ASU), has entered into a collaboration agreement with private equity investor Heliae Development and Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz) to develop, produce and sell aviation fuel derived from algae. The project will be based on patented technologies developed by Professors Qiang Hu and Milton Sommerfeld at ASU’s Laboratory for Algae Research & Biotechnology in Scottsdale.
With a combined 40-year background in algal-based biofuels and biomaterials, Hu and Sommerfeld have advanced research efforts from the laboratory to field pilot-scale demonstration and production. They have identified specific algal strains that can convert a significant portion of their cellular mass into a type of oil that is a group of medium-chain fatty acids. The oil produced by these particular algae is high in concentration of these fatty acids, which, after deoxygenation treatment, closely mirrors the length of the hydrocarbon chains found in kerosene.
A competitive advantage of the medium-chain fatty acid-based kerosene production is the elimination of an expensive chemical or thermal cracking process, which is otherwise necessary for long-chain fatty acids commonly found in animal fat, vegetable oils and typical algae oils.
Heliae Development was recently formed by a group of private equity investors for the purpose of licensing and developing these algal strains for jet fuel.
“The world needs sustainable alternative fuel sources, and most critically the airline industry,” said Frank Mars, coordinating investor in Heliae. “Each year, more than 600 million barrels of kerosene-based fuels are refined from petroleum for the US military and commercial jet fleets. Our goal is to help ensure that ASU’s world-leading research in this field gets developed to a point that algae is seen as a cost-effective, real-world alternative to our dependency on fossil fuels. Our willingness to partner with ASU on this important project was facilitated by its flexibility and innovativeness in structuring the kind of collaborative relationship necessary to look long term and to advance technologies into the marketplace.”
Under the licence agreement with Heliae, AzTE will receive an equity stake in the company along with other standard forms of consideration including licensing fees and a share of any commercialization income. In addition, Heliae will provide research funding of $1.5 million to ASU to support further development of the specific algal strains towards commercial production of jet fuel. The Heliae funding will be matched equally by a Strategic Research Group award from SFAz, making a total of $3 million for the project.
As part of an ASU collaboration with Boeing, Hu and Sommerfeld attended the Farnborough Air Show in July to share their findings and research on algae-based biofuels. Boeing has committed a $225,000 grant to support ongoing algae research at ASU and to provide three scholarships for graduate students.
An attraction at the Boeing exhibit was a 75-gallon bioreactor that promotes accelerated algae growth (see photo). “The experience was very positive because most shows are too technical for the public,” said Hu. “With the live algae, we can explain to children and families how algae grow, and how we extract the oil and convert it to jet fuel.”
According to Hu, the technology to help algae reproduce effectively is still five years away. “The critical issue is the biomass feedstock, not oil conversion,” he said. “To bring the cost down we need many more breakthroughs and innovations. Bioreactors are expensive at this stage. We need a cost-efficient way to sustain high growth.”
With numerous programmes and projects to address global environmental issues, Arizona State University is among the world’s leading research universities in the area of sustainability. It is home to the US’s first School of Sustainability and the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS), with research initiatives in solar energy, biofuels and fuel cells.