October 10, 2009

St. Louis' King of Algae

Scientist Richard Sayre wants to add pond scum to the things St. Louis is known for.

With its network of universities and scientists, St. Louis is emerging as a hotbed of algae fuel research as cities nationwide clamor for funding commitments, which already have topped the $1 billion mark. So far, St. Louis institutions have nabbed more than $45 million in grants to study the green stuff.

The money is pouring in to research algae’s potential as an alternative to fossil fuels for use as a base for oil. Gasoline companies, including Chevron and Exxon Mobil, are making major cash investments. This summer, Exxon Mobil entered a $600 million partnership with California-based biotech company Synthetic Genomics for algae research and development.

Research going on today in St. Louis is looking at whether blue-green algae, also called cyanobacteria, can be produced in mass quantities for fuel for airplanes and hybrid automobiles to help reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions and provide a lower-cost alternative to petroleum.

Biofuels scientist Sayre is leading the algae research at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur. The Taylor family gave $25 million in 2007 to establish the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels, where the algae research is centered. The Taylors’ grant also funds research on oilseeds, but algae is gaining more attention and dollars.

In April, the Danforth Plant Science Center scored its first major algae funding win with a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Sayre was recruited from the Department of Plant Cellular and Molecular Biology at Ohio State University in 2008 based on his background in photosynthesis, the chemical process where plants and some bacteria combine sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce energy. There are now about 20 research investigators at the Danforth Plant Science Center working solely on algae.

“There are very few other places that have that density,” Sayre said. St. Louis’ depth of algae researchers helped earn the city the top spot in Biofuels Digest’s “King of Algal Energy” readers’ poll in August, beating out Silicon Valley, San Diego and Seattle.

“Clearly St. Louis is one of the centers, along with San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and others, and we’re working together,” said Stephen Mayfield, associate dean of graduate studies at The Scripps Research Institute, a private, nonprofit research organization based in La Jolla, Calif.

“This is one area of biology that all of us are going to have to be fantastically successful at, and if we are, it will be a huge breakthrough for the world,” he said.

Algae uses photosynthesis to draw energy from the sun. The algae is grown in labs for research locally, but to commercialize its use, large swaths of land would have to be set aside to grow it in ponds.

Sayre said algae’s potential is exciting because it’s significantly more efficient than corn for use as fuel, and algae can be harvested year-round. Corn has grabbed the bulk of the attention and investment in recent years for use as a biofuel, but Sayre said corn has major limitations — namely that its end use as a food source competes with its use as an energy alternative.

One of Sayre’s current research projects is investigating how to extract, or ‘milk,’ oil out of algae without destroying it so it can be re-used.

St. Louis’ moderate temperatures and ample rainfall could make the region a place to one day mass produce algae to meet demand. “The Midwest has a good deal of water available,” he said. “In many respects, we think the Midwest will be positioned to capitalize” on future mass production of algae.

The availability of flat land also could position St. Louis well for increased algae investment. “It’s estimated the area of ponds (used to harvest algae for research) globally now is 400 acres,” Sayre said. “To produce fuel that would replace transportation fuels in the U.S., you’d need an area the size of the state of Maryland,” or about 6.2 million acres.

Gaining Steam

Scientists at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Washington University also are investigating algae as a potential source of energy.

Teresa Thiel, professor of biology at UMSL, has been researching algae for more than two decades. Her current work is focused on manipulating algae to generate hydrogen. UMSL received a $225,000 grant from the state’s Life Science Research Trust in 2007 to study algae.

Washington University has attracted more than $30 million in grants for algae research, although only a portion of that amount is focused on algae as a biofuel. This summer, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded Washington University a $20 million grant to establish the Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC), which will research light harvesting and energy funneling in plants and bacteria, including algae. Robert Blankenship, professor of biology and chemistry, is director of the PARC program, and chemistry professor Dewey Holten is associate director.

Washington University is collaborating with 16 principal investigators from around the world on the program, and five are based at Washington University: Blankenship, Holten, Himadri Pakrasi, Pratim Biswas and Cynthia Lo, all Ph.D.s.

“Our work is focused on the fundamental processes at the front-end, and how to better understand photosynthesis,” said Holten, a chemistry professor at Washington U. The grant isn’t limited to studying algae as a biofuel, but it will give scientists worldwide a better idea of how to make the photosynthetic process in plants and bacteria, including algae, more efficient, Holten said.

In early September, Washington University hosted a two-day workshop on renewable energy, with a focus on algae research. Nearly 100 scientists from the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, New Zealand, Germany and the Czech Republic joined several Washington University staff in making presentations on research relating to algae, including Pakrasi, director of Washington University’s International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES), which was created in 2007. Washington University has committed more than $70 million to fund I-CARES, including construction of its new home in Brauer Hall at the corner of Skinker Boulevard and Forest Park Parkway, which is under way now and set to be completed next fall.

The Scripps Research Institute’s Mayfield also spoke at the renewable energy conference at Washington University last month and has been studying algae for more than a decade. Mayfield serves as chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of Sapphire Energy, a California-based company that produces renewable replacements for fossil fuel petroleum. “Most of us who have worked in the field have come to realize that algae is probably the best bet out there right now,” he said.

“In the U.S., we make 8 billion gallons of ethanol a year, but it takes food off the table. The advantage of algae is that we can grow it in something that’s not crop land.”

Algae Credentials
Biologists on the cutting edge
Richard Sayre, Ph.D., is director of the Enterprise Rent-a-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur. Sayre was recruited from his role as the chair of the Department of Plant Cellular and Molecular Biology at Ohio State University in 2007, and he came to St. Louis in 2008.
In 2007, Sayre was a Fulbright Scholar at Brazil’s University of Sao Paulo in its Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, focusing on microalgal biotechnology. He received his doctorate from the University of Iowa and completed his post-doctoral work at Harvard University.

Himadri Pakrasi, Ph.D., is the George William and Irene Koechig Freiberg Professor of Biology at Washington University. He received his undergraduate degree in physics from the Presidency College and the University of Calcutta in India, a doctorate in biology from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and completed post-doctoral work at Michigan State University. He came to Washington U. in 1987 as an assistant professor of biology.

Teresa Thiel, Ph.D., is associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and director of the biotechnology program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She received her doctorate in microbiology from Case Western Reserve University and completed her post-doctoral research at the Plant Research Laboratory at Michigan State University.

Other Hotbeds of Algae Research
San Diego — Algae fuel research is centered at University of California, San Diego, which has dozens of researchers focusing on algae. This summer, Exxon Mobil entered a $600 million partnership with California-based biotech company Synthetic Genomics, based in nearby La Jolla, for algae research and development.

Seattle — Seattle’s algae center of research is the University of Washington. In January 2009, Boeing Co.’s Seattle operations partnered with Houston-based Continental Airlines to test a 737-800 airplane using biofuel. The 90-minute flight from Houston did not have any passengers on board and successfully flew on a 50-50 biofuel blend made from algae and jatropha plants.

Silicon Valley — Venture capital companies based in Silicon Valley, San Francisco and San Jose are making major investments in algae biofuels. In September, the Pentagon selected San Francisco-based Solazyme Inc. to provide the first 100 percent algae-derived jet fuel for the Navy. Founded in 2003, Solazyme has raised $75 million in funding from investors to produce renewable algae oil.

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