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From Scaling Up to Start-Ups: Success Stories from the Algae Support Program

The ATP3 support program enables academic researchers and industry innovators to demonstrate commercial feasibility and test out novel ideas at low cost and risk.

As part of the Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership’s mission to provide open access to a network of algae testbed sites, ATP3 subsidizes the cost of facilities and materials for a limited number of short-term projects through its support program. Applicants are vetted through a review process to select projects with a high potential to advance the commercialization of algal biofuels, bioproducts and processes.

This program provides businesses, entrepreneurs and academic researchers with access to testbed facilities, cultivation and downstream equipment and the technical expertise needed to test novel ideas and troubleshoot commercialization issues. Since the support program launched in 2014, a total of six projects have been supported, ranging in topics from scaled growth of microalgae and nutrient recycling to equipment validation and process improvement.

In the most recent round of projects, three groups have successfully completed work in collaboration with the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation testbed site in Mesa, AZ. The impact of the support program is resulting in a significant return on investment, as evidenced by the number of presentations and publications in prep, plans for continued partnerships moving forward and expansion of the algae industry that has even included a start-up company.

Scaling up the growth of microalgae to production levels

Matthew Posewitz, Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Geochemistry at the Colorado School of Mines, learned about the support program through discussions with Tom Dempster (ATP3 Principal Instructor) at an education and training workshop and based on the esteemed reputation of the program. As Posewitz explains, “Numerous colleagues have discussed the merits of this program, as well as the resources available to help interested scientists attain outdoor performance metrics for their organism(s) of interest without having to replicate the investment, expertise and infrastructure already present at the ATP3 testbeds.”

Research in the Posewitz Lab has focused on characterizing the biochemical pathways by which microalgae produce various forms of bioenergy carriers (e.g., hydrogen, lipids, terpenoids) and metabolically engineering these strains to enhance bioenergy production. Posewitz and Fiona Davies (former Postdoctoral Researcher in the Posewitz Lab and now Research Assistant Professor) have worked extensively with a model organism, the euryhaline cyanobacterium Synechococcus sp. PCC 7002, used as a platform to synthesize hydrocarbon precursors to a range of industrially relevant commodity chemicals. However, these strains are typically grown under lab conditions without exposure to the elements (e.g., fluctuating irradiation, high temperature, predation) that may adversely affect growth during industrial-scale production.

Thus, Posewitz and Davies turned to the support program to characterize the growth of this model organism when cultivated under industrially relevant conditions, including flat-panel photobioreactors and outdoor raceway ponds. These results were then compared to the performance of other algal strains currently being studied in the ATP3 program to evaluate the competitiveness of their selected strain.

The project provided valuable insight into the metabolic behavior of the cyanobacterium when grown on a larger scale that they could take back to the lab. Davies reflects, “The lessons learned from the scale-up process have enabled us to refine our laboratory practices to better mimic the most successful growth conditions at scale, and to improve our metabolic engineering strategies so that they are more relevant and compatible with the cellular metabolisms observed at scale.”

Davies highly recommends that academic researchers consider partnering with an ATP3 testbed facility to test the applicability of laboratory-developed strains for industrial production. She explains, “Experiences from this ATP3 collaboration have cemented our understanding of the importance of scaled cultivation trials, particularly outdoors, to gain an intimate understanding of how laboratory strains respond to the unpredictable conditions of scaled cultivation, and to identify potential pitfalls early on.”

As for the facilities and support received, Davies remarks, “The guidance and support from ATP3 and the AzCATI faculty and technicians has been outstanding, from the logistics of the scale-up to the analytical processing of samples. The vast experience and knowledge of the on-site staff was crucial for allowing us to scale rapidly from the laboratory to outdoors. Both the laboratory and outdoors cultivation facilities were excellent, with automated equipment in place to monitor all relevant environmental and growth parameters in the outdoor raceways.”

Davies has been invited to present her talk “Engineering photosynthetic limonene and bisabolene production in the cyanobacterium Synechococcus sp. PCC 7002” at the International Conference on Microbial Hydrocarbon Production in Frankfurt this fall, where she will highlight the outdoor cultivation work enabled by the ATP3 support program. The data from this work is also being prepared for publication.

Application of metabolic pH control methods in an outdoor ‘real-world’ setting

The Curtis Lab at Pennsylvania State University is well known for its research on bioprocess design and optimization for energy conversion, plant biotechnology and production of medically relevant bioproducts. One research theme of the lab involves process design improvements and the genetic engineering of microorganisms, such as algae, to produce biofuels and biopolymers.

Recently, Wayne Curtis and Jun Wang (PhD graduate student from the Curtis Lab) developed a metabolism-based pH control method, which relies on controlling the delivery of nutrients supplied to the system using a stoichiometric growth model. Such a method could significantly reduce algae cultivation costs by reducing the need for extraneous chemicals (e.g., buffers, acid/base) in pH control. However, this method had only been demonstrated in the lab, and as Curtis comments, they “wanted to test it at large scale to see how it performs in the real world.”

This is where the start of the partnership between the Curtis Lab and ATP3 begins. Curtis first met John McGowen (ATP3 Director of Operations) at the DOE Biomass 2014 conference, where Wang was presenting the results of his new methodology. After Curtis and Wang saw a presentation by McGowen on the capabilities of the ATP3 testbed sites, they recognized this tremendous opportunity to accelerate their work beyond what can be done in an academic lab, which led them to apply for the support program.

Through the project, Wang worked at the AzCATI testbed site and demonstrated the use of the metabolism-based pH control method under large-scale outdoor cultivation conditions. The results provided insight into metabolic changes that were uniquely occurring within the microalgal strain when grown outdoors, which will require further research of the methodology for commercial application.

The results of the project subsequently aided in the successful PhD defense of Jun Wang, who is now—with leverage from this project—pursuing a start-up company related to algae biofuels and bioproducts. The work is also being included in a manuscript that is in preparation.

The partnership between the Curtis Lab and ATP3 doesn’t end here. For example, large amounts of algae biomass produced at ATP3 were recently fermented to ethanol using a biological consortium technology developed in the Curtis Lab. In addition, Curtis explains, “We are also looking forward to a continued effort at this ATP3 site that is being planned to include testing the performance of genetically transformed lines of algae, emphasizing the unique capabilities at the testbed site that could not be undertaken within our own research infrastructure.”

Expanding the reach of technologies into diverse algal markets

Searen, LLC, is the exclusive Americas licensee of the Vacuum AirLift (VAL) technology, a patented water treatment system that serves three functions in one single device: gas exchange, water circulation and microparticle extraction. The VAL tool has significant application and advantages for the oil and gas, algae culture, aquaculture and wastewater industries. Within the algaculture domain, the VAL could provide more efficient CO2 gas delivery, mixing and algae harvesting, reducing the energy inputs and thus operating expenses into the system.

Searen is focusing on microalgae as a target market in North America, and therefore, they desired to evaluate the performance of the VAL system in terms of both economic and operational competitiveness for this application using diverse strains of algae. An algae industry colleague referred Phil Fitzpatrick, Senior Advisor at Searen, to AzCATI as a potential location to test out the system. As he explains, “The ATP3 support program offered an opportunity to research, validate and verify the application of VAL as a competitive tool for the algae industry by a renowned and credible institution.” Fitzpatrick adds, “The team members representing the ATP3 support program are highly motivated and flexible to ensure success and were very responsive to our needs.”

Results from the VAL testing will be made available once the trial has been completed. Overall, Fitzpatrick says of their experience so far, “The ATP3 support program has enabled both parties to engage with algae experts who have both theoretical and technical understanding of the challenges confronting the algae industry—for research and commercial applications—that has enhanced our understanding of the needs and the potential applications of the VAL. It has been a mutually rewarding activity as we have increased our knowledge of the algae industry as well as AzCATI has been able to adapt the VAL for new applications with algae.”

How to apply to the support program

While these projects were conducted at the AzCATI testbed site, projects can be supported across our network of algae testbed sites. To apply for the support program, please complete the expression of interest form located on the ATP3 website and submit to info@atp.org. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.

For more details or questions about the program, contact John McGowen (Director of Operations) at John.McGowen@asu.edu.

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Fiona Davies uses centrifugation to harvest Synechococcus sp. PCC 7002 biomass cultivated in flat-panel photobioreactors.
Jun Wang and graduate students from the Curtis Lab touring the AzCATI facilities.
The Vacuum AirLift (VAL) system installed at the AzCATI testbed site for testing its application in algae biomass production.