Arizona Technology and Innovation: Reducing the Price of Algae-based Biofuels (interview taped on 11-25)

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The U.S. Department of Energy will award six projects $18 million to reduce the price of algae-based biofuels to less than $5 per gasoline gallon equivalent by 2019. Arizona State University will receive up to $1 million of the funding. Bruce Rittmann, an Arizona State University Regents’ Professor of Environmental Engineering, will tell us more about ASU’s project.

TED SIMONS: ASU will receive up to $1 million from the U.S. department of energy as part of an effort to reduce the price of algae-based biofuels. We recently talked about the project with Bruce Rittmann, an ASU regents' professor of environmental engineering.

TED SIMONS: Thank you so much for joining us on "Arizona Horizon."

BRUCE RITTMANN: Great, my pleasure.

TED SIMONS: Million dollar grant for algae-based research. What are we talking about here?

BRUCE RITTMANN: Well, what we're talking about is bringing the potential of taking CO2 and mixing it with sunlight to create fuel. These are renewable fuels that ultimately could replace petroleum to produce diesel fuel.

TED SIMONS: And algae-based biomass can make chemicals, polymers?

BRUCE RITTMANN: They can make high-value products for chemical industry, also for neutroceuticals.

TED SIMONS: It sounds like the goal is to get the price of this alternate jet fuel, alternate diesel fuel down to $5?

BRUCE RITTMANN: That's correct. And this has been the big weak link in the whole we call microalgae fuel business and that is the costs simply have been too high and the main reason is the productivity is not high enough. We have a big capital investment and you don't get enough product out of it so we try to overcome that problem.

TED SIMONS: What is the cost of biomass fuels now?

BRUCE RITTMANN: It would be quite a bit larger than $5. It might be five times that now.

TED SIMONS: And again, you want to get to $5 a gallon by 2019?

BRUCE RITTMANN: 2019 would be good yes. So our project, which is starting right now, will go in through 2017 and we hope to be at that point able to move it out into the field as a fairly large-scale demonstration, a couple more years and we could implement.

TED SIMONS: And you mention CO2 as a major factor of this research. Talk to us about the aspects of CO2, the capture, the enrichment, what ASU will actually be studying in researching?

BRUCE RITTMANN: Exactly, this is the unique thing about our program. And so to get the microalgae to grow fast so we have a high productivity and low cost, we need to give them a concentrated stream of CO2, way more concentrated than is in the normal atmosphere. Normally, you would get this or theoretically you would get this from a power plant but there aren't that many power plants around and they aren't necessarily located in nice sunny places like Arizona. So what we want to do is democratize microalgae production by allowing us to capture CO2 from anywhere from the air, concentrate it 100-fold or more and then feed that concentrated CO2 to the microalgae very efficiently so they'll have a high productivity, lower the cost.

TED SIMONS: Algae grows in a certain way with sun, outdoors, nature. You want to amp up nature?

BRUCE RITTMANN: We want to go much faster than nature or you can by just bubbling air through.

TED SIMONS: In terms of capturing CO2 in a better fashion, what's involved here? What are you looked?

BRUCE RITTMANN: So we have a resin material, think of it like a porous sponge. And when this sponge is dry and you pass air through it, it very strongly attracts the CO2 molecules in the air and they bind to the sponge. Then after it's collected enough, we moisten and it changes the chemistry and the CO2 comes off and we then collect the CO2 in a very smaller volume of air so we have concentrated it by a 100-fold or more.

TED SIMONS: You take what you've captured and just because you have more in a smaller area, is that the enrichment?

BRUCE RITTMANN: Basically, that's it. You have the same CO2 but in a much smaller volume.

TED SIMONS: What about delivering the CO2 at higher efficiency? What's that all about?

BRUCE RITTMANN: So that's very important too particularly since we're going to make an investment to capture and enrich so what we do is we use what's known as membrane carbonation. Membrane is a tiny straw. And we put many of these tiny straws into our reactor with the microalgae and the CO2 diffuses through the wall of the fiber and is delivered without any bubble. Now, the problem with bubbles is the bubbles will escape. And they'll bubble out. And we would lose a lot of the CO2 but when we can deliver it with no bubbles using these membranes, we can get virtually 100% delivery of CO2 so we waste none of this valuable CO2 we've just captured and concentrated.

TED SIMONS: And the CO2 aspect is the ASU focus. But this grant is going to a number of areas and a number of kinds of research, correct?

BRUCE RITTMANN: Well, there are other projects in the microalgae space that are very different but ours is the only one that's really focused on this capture and delivery.

TED SIMONS: I know the idea is to meet the growing demand that is expected for microalgae. Is the demand growing? Bring this on? What's going on out there as far as this particular emerging market?

BRUCE RITTMANN: Well, there's plenty of interest in bringing it on. But everyone says but it costs too much today. And so we have to address this cost issue. We've got to bring the price down by increasing the productivity and so we're focusing on the fulcrum of the lever.

TED SIMONS: And I would imagine green jobs, innovation, helping the environment, that all plays into this as well?

BRUCE RITTMANN: It helps the environment by removing CO2 from the atmosphere and using it in a way that we can replace our need for fossil fuels, and it's going to be used in places like Arizona and we're going to create green jobs for people who are going to operate these facilities and process the biomass and the fuels downstream.

TED SIMONS: How big could they be if you're talking large mass scales?

BRUCE RITTMANN: We're talking what we call a microalgae farms, these would cover many, many thousands of acres, all of them, and you would have the collection pods with the resins in, sprinkled all around within the ponds that have the algae.

TED SIMONS: And so okay. We've got the research. The $1 million grant to ASU for this study for a couple of years. Time table for the research. What are you expecting? What can we expect to see and hear out of all of this?

BRUCE RITTMANN: The project is a two-year project and we want to go from where we are now where we've demonstrated all the parts in the laboratory, we need to put all the parts together and then demonstrate them at a much larger scale. That's what our goal for two years is. With that in hand, then it's ready to go out for much bigger implementation with private investment and, you know, then take it out to the market.

TED SIMONS: Last question. I've been -- it seems like I've been doing these algae stories for years. We keep having guys on and people are bringing products, and it's the wave of the future but it still seems like it's still the wave of the future. When is this future going to happen?

BRUCE RITTMANN: The future will happen when two things coincide. One of them is we're working on, to increase the productivity to lower the costs. The other thing is, of course, the cost is all relative and it is relative to the cost of fossil fuels like petroleum. And eventually, they will go up because of supply and demand and other factors and so at a certain point, the cost curves are going to cross and then microalgae based fuels will be the way to go.

TED SIMONS: Very good. Good to have you here, thanks for joining us.


VIDEO: We want to hear from you. Submit your questions, comments and concerns via e-mail at [email protected].

TED SIMONS: Friday on "Arizona Horizon," it's the Journalists' Roundtable. The attorney general asks the state supreme court to remove a Corporation Commissioner from office. That's on the Journalists' Roundtable. That's it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thanks for joining us. You have a great evening.

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Bruce Rittmann: Arizona State University Regents' Professor of Environmental Engineering

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