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Sandia's algae raceway tests fuel for future

Facility helps bridge gap from lab to real world

It's not a freeway, but the new algae raceway testing facility at Sandia National Laboratories could someday lead to the fuel that powers your car on I-580.

Civic and community leaders turned out earlier this month for the opening of Sandia's three 1,000-liter algae ponds and presentations by scientists and Marianne Walck, vice president of Sandia's California laboratory. Outfitted with custom lighting and 24-hour advanced hyper-spectral monitoring, the testing tanks could help bring the promise of algal biofuels closer to reality.

As one of the fastest-growing organisms on the planet, algae are an ideal source of biomass, but researchers have not yet found a cost-competitive way to use algae for fuels. But that could change through the work underway at Sandia.

The facility helps bridge the gap from the lab to the real world by providing an environmentally controlled raceway where scientists like Ben Wu, Sandia's biomass science and conversion technology manager, can monitor, test and fine-tune discoveries.

The success of moving technologies from a research lab to the large warehouse-size facility at Sandia offers researchers a chance to scale-up from flask to a 150,000-liter outdoor raceway pond. The new algae testing facility consists of three 1,000-liter raceway ponds with advanced monitoring, giving laboratory scientists new advantages. These include customized lighting and temperature controls, advanced hyperspectral monitoring 24 hours a day, fully contained for testing genetic strains and crop protection strategies and the ability to simulate the conditions of locations across the country.

As part of a project funded by Sandia's Laboratory Directed Research and Development program, the algae raceway is giving researchers Todd Lane and Anne Ruffing the ability to more quickly identify strains that promise improved performance and to test genetically modified algae strains. Lane is also part of a project partnership with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory funded by the Department of Energy's Bioenergy Technologies Office that is investigating a probiotic approach to algae crop protection. Another project seeks to convert algae proteins into useful chemical compounds such as butanol.

The facility will expand opportunities for Sandia researchers to develop algae as a robust source of biofuels and increase collaborations and partnerships with the private sector, particularly in California where efforts to transform transportation energy are prevalent.

"The bioeconomy is gaining momentum," Wu said. "Biofuels from algae may be further off, but algae has sugar and proteins that can make fuel or higher valued products, such as butanol or nylon, products that currently come from fossil fuels."

The Sandia team is also applying these technologies and collecting more data at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation. The facility is the first national algae testbed and is a key component of the Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership led by Arizona State University.

Similar in scope to the Livermore-based Sandia algae raceway testing facility, it features algal ponds and closed photobioreactor algae cultivation systems of various sizes and serves as a hub for research, testing and commercialization of algae-based products.

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