Systems Approach to Bioenergy Research (SABER)

A light micrograph of algae similar to those being studied by the SABER program
A diagram showing the process of producing algae for energy

A state-of-the-art, off-the-grid algal cultivation facility will allow us to produce algae with a minimal ecological footprint. Once cultivated, the algae yield lipids, carbohydrates, and protein, which can be processed into biofuels using microorganisms or used as biomass in animal feed. Wastewater from the process (and other sources) can then be reintroduced into the system during cultivation, making this a highly efficient, ecologically friendly alternative for producing fuel from the sun.
An image of the Cyclotron instrument
Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance (FT-ICR) Mass Spectrometry enables the high resolution analysis of carbohydrate (sugar) conversion pathways used by microorganisms during the production of biofuels, aiding in the upscaling of these processes to a more efficient industrial scale.

Biofuels, organic fuels made from plants and vegetables, are considered to be a proven means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing energy security by providing an alternative to fossil fuels. The development of biofuels as energy source alternative to fossil fuels is an urgent global priority. However, world food shortages and new concerns about sustainability have caused a reevaluation of the long-term viability of ethanol and other biofuels as a fuel source. Process inefficiencies and land-use requirements represent major hurdles for large-scale deployment of first and second generation biomass-to-biofuel technologies, in particular.

The 2005 U.S. Energy Policy Act (link opens .pdf) mandates that 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuels will be incorporated into gasoline over the next 6 years. Ethanol produced from corn comprises the majority of renewable fuel in the U.S., and limited supply will force ethanol production from other biomass sources. In response to this need, the State of Florida is making a major investment in biofuels technology. The development of biofuel technologies is at the forefront of the comprehensive energy and economic development package (HB 7135) that has resulted in the creation of the Florida Energy Systems Consortium (FESC) and the Florida Energy and Climate Commission.

Marine algae represent an unexploited biomass source that could provide a cheap, clean, and renewable fuel source that is ideally suited for production in Florida. Algae are arguably the most promising non-food source of biofuels, producing a yield that is 10 times higher than land crops, and using the ocean would mean farmland that could grow food would not be a part of the biofuel equation. The US DOE estimates that in order to replace all the petroleum fuel in the USA with algal derived biofuel, under intensive cultivation requires only 15,000 square miles, roughly the size of the state of Maryland. With one of the largest coastlines in the U.S. and all population centers near the coast, Florida is positioned to develop a nearly unlimited supply of biomass to support biofuel production, from it’s surrounding oceans. Marine algae use simple nutrients and energy from the sun to support the base of the food chain in the world’s ocean, and much less research is available to demonstrate their fuel potential in comparison to land-based biomass sources.

Microorganisms naturally decompose dead/ dying algae in the oceans at temperatures ranging from – 2 to > 100 °C, and these microbes could be exploited to produce biomass-degrading enzymes specific to the processing of algal carbon to form soluble sugars that can be fermented to ethanol. Ethanol refining requires harsh (hot, acidic) conditions for microbes. Thus, we will exploit microbes from hostile or extreme environments for the discovery of new enzymes that nature has evolved naturally to deal with harsh conditions.

From the Kostka Lab: