Competitions Spark Algae Innovation

  Algae Europe December 2022
Algae Innovation

AlgaePrize student finalist teams will conduct valuable algae commercialization research. Photo: Dennis Schroeder, NREL

F​inancial incentives and high-profile competitions are stimulating bold thinking in the development of algal solutions to world problems. Two of the most high-profile contests have released milestone progress reports over the past few days.

Launched in January 2022, the AlgaePrize is a new competition from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) that “encourages students to pursue innovative ideas for the development, design, and invention of technologies within the commercial algae value chain.“

On April 22, 2022, BETO announced 15 student teams advancing as finalists. Those teams will receive $5,000 to conduct their proposed research projects over the next 16 months and will present the results next year at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Competition areas cover both microalgae and macroalgae. Student team proposals focus their projects on innovations that apply to algae production, downstream processing, and new product or analytical tool development.

The AlgaePrize is sponsored by BETO and supported by the Algae Foundation and NREL. “We are already looking forward to spring next year when we host the AlgaePrize finalist teams at NREL in April 2023,” said Zia Abdullah, NREL laboratory program manager for BETO.

The finalist teams are:

  • Algaeorithm: Los Altos High School, Los Altos, California; The Paideia School, Atlanta, Georgia; Institute for Systems Biology, Seattle Washington
  • AzCATI: Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona; New York University, New York City, New York
  • The Clean Water Cultivators: Santa Fe Community College, Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • The Cyantific Method: Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado
  • FitoEnergy Team: University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
  • Keep Calm and Chlamy On: University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California
  • Kelp! I Need Some Algae: University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska
  • PhycoSight: Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia
  • Polyculture Jam: Austin Community College, Austin, Texas; University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas; Del Valle High School, El Paso, Texas; Humboldt State University, Arcata, California
  • Pond Doctors: California State University Monterey, Seaside, California; California State University San Jose, San Jose, California; Cabrillo College, Aptos, California; Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Moss Landing, California
  • PUPR AlgaePrize Team: Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, San Juan, Puerto Rico
  • Purdue ChemE: Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana
  • Serena Prather’s Team: Santa Fe Community College, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Delgado Community College, New Orleans, Louisiana
  • UC Davis Giant Kelp Team: University of California Davis, Davis, California
  • Underground Ocean Farmers: Santa Fe Community College, Santa Fe, New Mexico

These 15 student finalist teams will present their research at the AlgaePrize Competition Event in April 2023, and the five selected as AlgaePrize winners will each receive $10,000. A grand champion team will win an additional $5,000. The five winning teams will then attend the Algae Biomass Summit to present their research and network with participants from the national and international algae community.

“While algae technologies have so much potential to make an impact supplying future carbon-negative fuels and products, fresh ideas are critical to make sure we leave no stone unturned in coming up with sustainable solutions for culturing and also for taking advantage of every component of the biomass,” said Lieve Laurens, a senior researcher and lead of NREL’s algae platform.

Elon Musk Behind Another Wheel

Meanwhile, electric vehicle and rocket company developer Elon Musk is bankrolling a $100 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition for the most promising ways to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by grabbing the gas right out of the air.

The 15 early phase “milestone round” winners were announced Friday, and each will get $1 million, for the teams to scale up their work.

Algae Innovation

XPRIZE Milestone winner Global Algae Innovations, based in Santee, California

Milestone winner Global Algae Innovations, based in Santee, California, won with a plan to cultivate algae to help restore rain forests, which capture huge volumes of carbon dioxide. “Algae can be a more efficient and more profitable alternative to the cattle ranching and soy and palm oil crops currently on cleared rain forest land,” said Mark Hazlebeck, a principal of the family-owned company. “We’re actually creating more oil and protein while we’re reforesting at the same time.”

The milestone winners aren’t necessarily ahead or favored for the $80 million in final prize money that will be awarded in three years. Until Dec. 1, 2023, anyone can still jump into the contest — which was announced a year ago — and potentially get a share of that money.

The final winning team or teams will need to show they can remove 1,100 tons (1,000 metric tons) of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, show how much it would cost to remove up to 1.1 million tons (1 million metric tons) per year and show a path to removing billions of tons of carbon dioxide per year.

A third party — neither the participants nor XPRIZE — will independently validate the work submitted for the grand prize to be announced on April 20, 2025.

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