March 17, 2010

Bigelow lab hoping tiny pays off big

The research facility, poised to expand, has joined the race to produce fuel from algae.

By Beth Quimby
Staff Writer

BOOTHBAY HARBOR - A test tube culture of the algae botryococcus looks like yellow swamp water.

click image to enlarge

Willie Wilson, a senior research scientist, holds a tube containing an algae culture at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor. The laboratory has secured a grant to research the possibility of turning algae into fuel.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Under a microscope, it becomes clear why scientists are so excited about its potential as a biofuel: The single-cell phytoplankton are surrounded by shimmering globules of deep gold-colored oil.

It produces relatively large amounts of oil for a marine algae, but botryococcus has one flaw as an energy source.

"It grows slowly," said Willie Wilson, a senior research scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and the interim director of the world's largest algae collection.

The laboratory, using a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, teamed up recently with the Boston-based renewable energy company Bodega Algae to develop technology to speed up the algae-growing process. In doing so, Bigelow joined the race to make algae-based fuels commercially viable.

Success in the next six months could bring more grant money and one of the breakthroughs needed to develop large-scale production and launch a multibillion-dollar biofuel industry.

"The winners will be those who can grow the greatest biomass," said Wilson.

The project will help demonstrate the laboratory's ability to develop commercial applications for its scientific research as it undertakes a major building expansion with $4.5 million from the Maine Technology Asset Fund.

Founded in 1974 by a splinter group of scientists from the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, Bigelow operates with a staff of 50 out of a series of dilapidated buildings, including trailers and a converted garage that it leases from the Maine Department of Marine Resources. But the science going on inside is cutting-edge.

Bigelow is one of the largest of the dozens of private and public groups on the Maine coast devoted to research and development of marine resources.

At the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences, the state's largest marine research organization, 50 scientists pull in about $7 million a year in federal money for research, primarily on a large scale -- such as the development of offshore wind power.

Bigelow Laboratory's 13 senior scientists win comparable funding while focusing on research of the world's oceans on the molecular level.

"That is probably the hottest area in marine sciences," Pete Jumars, director of UMaine's School of Marine Sciences, said of the algae research.

The biofuels gold rush began in the 1980s, when the U.S. Department of Energy began looking for ways to extract the oils -- called lipids -- from algae for energy uses.

Although small quantities of algal biofuels are now being produced, they are too expensive to compete with fossil fuels. Wilson predicts that technological breakthroughs and rising petroleum prices will make algae a feasible fuel source in 10 to 15 years.

Joe Dahman, chief executive officer of Bodega Algae, said his company picked Bigelow as a partner because of its experience and its large algae collection, which includes 2,700 specimens.

Bodega is working to develop a 250,000-liter photobioreactor, about the size of one of South Portland's fuel tanks, for large-scale production of algae for biofuels.

One obstacle to production is that algae need sunlight, but grow so rapidly that they block the light from algae below.

Production is now done in large shallow ponds in the desert. Those ponds are subject to evaporation and contamination, and require much land.

Bodega has developed an optical system that brings sunlight to algae in an enclosed tank.

With testing by Bigelow on various algae strains, Bodega hopes to prove that its production methods work, and eventually win funding to locate a photobioreactor next to a coal-fired plant. The plant would feed carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions to the algae, converting them to an oil-rich biomass.

As it pursues its research, Bigelow is also finalizing plans to build a new campus and deep-water landing on 64 acres of woodlands in East Boothbay. The laboratory is obtaining permits for what will be called the Bigelow Center for Blue Biotechnology.

It expects to break ground this summer and complete the first phase of a multi-building project in 2011. The laboratory is now seeking economic stimulus funds and private donations to complete the next phase of its campus.

"We think we have a compelling scientific case," Wilson said.


Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:


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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor is planning an expansion that would move the lab from cramped quarters on McKown Road to a deep-water site off Ocean Point Road in East Boothbay.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Sheri Floge, a research technician at Bigelow Laboratory, transfers an algae culture to a container that will be placed in a machine to monitor the growth of the culture.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


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