October 18, 2016 — by David Schwartz
Dr. Tom Dempster works as a research professor – focusing on strain selection and development, biomass production, algal biofuels and high-value products, and air and wastewater bioremediation – at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) at Arizona State University.
He also serves as the AzCATI laboratory manager, AzCATI Recharge Center manager, ASU safety and compliance manager, as well as the testbed site coordinator for the U.S. Department of Energy funded Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3).
Dr. Dempster began his algae research career as an undergraduate at Arizona State University in 1989, working on the Aquatic Species Program – a keystone research project in the history of algal biofuel development. He admits to being a bit “naive at the time” regarding the significance of that research project. “All I knew was that I wanted to work in the biology field,” he recalls.
“I wanted a job in a laboratory at that point in time. I didn’t care what field of research it was in. I just knew I wanted to be a biologist, didn’t know where to start so I walked into the Department Chair’s office. It just happened that Milt Sommerfeld was the Department Chair and resident phycologist on staff. He described a little about his research and what immediately caught my attention was the nature of the Aquatic Species Program. I had no knowledge about it at the time, but it impressed me that you could take microscopic organisms called algae and get them to produce oil that could be a renewable liquid fuel source.”
“From that initial discussion, real applications within biology became my primary interest. Any type of work I became engaged in I wanted to see an application for industry, for society, and the ability to illustrate that we can solve a problem or create a product that would help. That was the first time the light bulb went off where I saw practical applications of biology.”
He completed his B.S. in Biology, M.S. in Botany and Ph.D. in Plant Biology from Arizona State University while studying a variety of algae-related topics, primarily related to algal biofuel production, drinking water quality and wastewater bioremediation. Along the way he also earned an M.Ed. in Secondary Education and an M.Ed. in Educational Administration and Supervision from Arizona State University.
“My studies were primarily biofuels driven. There was almost no talk of co-products back in the early nineties,” he says. “We knew we could clean up wastewater, but other applications seemed pretty far off. The reason was that we had no capability to do large-scale algae cultivation. We were still operating with one to two liters as the largest culture size in the laboratory. We did not have the incredible facility (AzCATI) out at the Polytechnic campus at that time.
“Back in the 1980s, funding was driven by the Department of Energy for renewable liquid fuels. When that faded away I completely shifted gears. I stayed with algae, but began working with local municipalities at their water treatment facilities, helping them identify taste and odor compounds from microalgae and treat the water more cost efficiently.”
Dr. Dempster practices what he preaches now, hooking students on the real life practical applications of what they’re learning. “I let them know that they can really do something that has the potential to change the world,” he says.
Prior to the ATP3 award ($15M grant from Department of Energy) was the formation of AzCATI. “Folks within our organization had the foresight to have the ‘if we build it they will come’ philosophy. So we built an algae test bed before we had the customers, challenging ourselves to create a plug and play facility that would appeal to researchers that work anywhere across the algae value chain. The idea was for researchers to come onsite, plug in their technologies and work side by side with our researchers and technicians.
“We established quite an infrastructure, and we could accommodate almost anything that any customer wanted to bring onsite from a technology standpoint: harvesting and dewatering technologies, novel photobioreactors, being able to test people’s magic strains onsite, etc.
“A lot of things are conceived and developed by an engineer or two that have no background in biology, and little interest in actually growing the algae themselves. They think they’ve created the best device for, say, dewatering algae, or stimulating growth in algae, but have no ability to validate their claims.
“We get a number of customers who come onsite to test their novel photobioreactors. We help them select a strain. We have the capability on our site to do comparative research. We can get productivity numbers and do biochemical analysis for them from the biomass produced in their system, while concurrently running that same strain under the same conditions in open ponds and vertical flat panels.”
The ATP3 program helped AzCATI researchers formalize their services, and let people know what they had available: isolating organisms, cleaning up contaminated cultures, biomass production, selling fit-for-purpose biomass, or testing and validating their technologies anywhere across the algae value chain.
“Somebody might have the best lipid extraction method but they have no means of generating biomass. We’ve had a number of customers that fall in that category. We can fill those voids, come up with an experimental design to meet their needs. We can train a technician or researcher if they want to work onsite with our people.”
As the lead testbed site for ATP3, the research facilities at Arizona State tend to be the go-to for many entrepreneurs and folks in academia and industry, and the large number of customers with applications or technologies that are not biofuels specific really emphasize the trends of the industry.
“A lot of folks are interested in identifying high value co-products from microalgae,” he says. “We now address a wide variety of applications that we hadn’t even thought about 25 years ago – didn’t think possible – including bioremediation of wastewater, produced water, impaired waters, anything that isn’t pristine, as well as bioremediation of air. Carbon Capture is really getting a lot of attention.”
“The Department of Energy is now funding research on co-products and other applications, like bioremediation, as long as we tie it back to biofuels. It really has people looking much more closely at co-location opportunities.”
At the time of our visit, Dr. Dempster had taken the ATP3 Education and Training Workshop on the road, along with University of Texas’ Dr. Schonna Manning, to present their weeklong algal workshop at Santa Fe Community College and the New Mexico Consortium in Los Alamos, NM. The class of 15 ranged in age from 17 to 75 years old, reflecting the wide range of interest in the possibilities for algae.
“SFCC’s algal program director Luke Spangenburg has some great examples of essentially closed-loop systems that are tying together complementary components of algae’s value chain. SFCC has fish production, the fish waste is used as a nutrient for algae cultivation, and the algae biomass is used as fertilizer to produce vegetables. Everything is right there at a single site.
“On a broader scale, can we put a large algae production facility in close proximity to a natural gas or a coal-burning power plant to get free CO2? And if we’re really lucky, we’ve got a livestock operation or a wastewater treatment plant in close proximity to provide low-cost (or no-cost) nitrates and phosphates.
“Is it possible to grow a lot of revenue generating biomass while solving the problems that exist in the energy industry with CO2 emissions? And reduce nutrients at wastewater plants and dairies? The answer more and more is becoming ‘yes, absolutely.’
“I constantly remind folks that every bit of what we’re doing is relatively new…we’re in a nascent industry. Our culture, and society today, wants results immediately. But look at traditional hydrocarbon fuels and how many years folks have been doing research on getting it out of the ground, refining it, transporting it…150 plus years has gone into that and they’re still making improvements.”
“There are many critical areas across the algae value chain: increasing biomass productivity, bringing down the cost of harvesting and dewatering biomass, mitigating contamination and eliminating culture crashes. These issues are daunting and cost and time intensive to improve. But what gives me hope is the increased collaboration that’s going on between academia, national labs and industry. Folks are working on solutions for those key concepts and incredible improvements in each of those areas are being made almost daily. And the industry as a whole is now doing a much better job of disseminating those results among members of the community.”
“We’ve made great strides. Researchers used to withhold their results in the laboratory until they could publish the paper. I believe we’re at the point now where the key players from an academic and commercial standpoint want to get the information out. We want the industry as a whole to be very successful. No one’s a winner if one of the higher profile companies fails. So that’s what gives me hope. We’re aiming to solve the common issues and collaboration is now key.”
Dr. Dempster – while currently developing several research projects with domestic partners, as well as International collaborations in South Africa, Germany, Poland and Lithuania – is looking for additional sites to present the ATP3 workshops. “This one, at SFCC, has been incredible,” he says. “I’m always considering taking this show on the road. In November we’re back at AzCATI, then possibly Cal Poly and Cellana – anywhere can we provide a different, unique and meaningful experience for our participants.”
“I’m a true phycologist,” he says. “That’s how I got my start. I’m fascinated by and thoroughly enjoy bioprospecting. We are just scratching the surface of what is possible with algae, and so much to be discovered.”