DARPA funds collaborative algae research

By Susanne Retka Schill | March 09, 2009
Algae research will get a big boost from two projects involving multiple partners that received funding this winter through the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA's BioFuels program is exploring energy alternatives and fuel efficiency efforts in a bid to reduce the military's reliance on traditional fuel through cost-effective alternatives.

Two experienced defense contractors, both based in San Diego, are leading the separate projects. General Atomics will lead a team of 18 university and industrial partners in a three-year project supported by a $43 million DARPA contract. Science Applications International Corp. received a $25 million contract for all phases of an algae development program involving industrial and academic organizations from Georgia, Florida, Hawaii and Texas. Both projects aim to develop a scalable process for the cost-effective, large-scale production of algae oil to be processed into a JP-8 jet fuel surrogate.

General Atomics said its project will examine all aspects of algae-to-jet-fuel production with the goal of making algae-based jet fuel an affordable, reliable, long-term option for the Department of Defense. This will involve identifying key cost drivers, and investigating multiple approaches to increasing productivity and reducing operating and capital costs. The program will address algae selection and growth; water, carbon dioxide and nutrient supply; algae harvesting; oil extraction; and conversion to JP-8. The contract will conclude with a pre-pilot-scale demonstration.

The advanced technologies group at General Atomics will handle the project. Besides working on technologies to convert algae into fuel, the group has worked on technologies to convert plastic wastes, trash and biomass into power. General Atomics has examined a wide range of energy and advanced technologies for industry and defense, including nuclear energy, laser, electromagnetic power and unmanned aerial vehicles, among others.

Science Applications International's team is targeting a $3-per-gallon cost for algae-derived JP-8 jet fuel in its work covering the same range of research topics as General Atomics, from algae strain selection though conversion, triglyceride purification and economic modeling. Its work on the contract will occur in two phases. Phase 1 will concentrate on technology selection and development, pilot plant site analyses, system integration, and economic modeling and analysis, culminating in lab-scale production capability, a preliminary production facility design and the delivery of samples for testing. The company will also develop detailed commercialization and qualification plans showing a path to commercial and military systems viability. Phase 2 will focus on the final design, integration and operation of a pre-pilot-scale production facility.

Science Applications International is a scientific, engineering and technology applications company working in national security, energy and the environment, critical infrastructure, and health arenas for the Department of Defense, other government agencies and selected commercial markets.
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