Stretching Algae’s Expiration Date
algae decay expiration

While it’s stored, food can spoil. The same can be said for the biomass used to develop biofuels and bioproducts.

by Nichole Fitzgerald

Renewable biomass is one of the key clean energy resources that will help manifest a low-carbon future. However, the process of developing viable and sustainable bio-based fuels, chemicals, and products from biomass suffers from similar limitations to stored produce. They decay and eventually expire.

Dr. Lynn Wendt, senior scientist at Idaho National Laboratory, has dedicated much of her research to addressing biomass decay challenges. She pioneered the development of high-moisture lignocellulosic biomass — like switchgrass, corn stover, and miscanthus — and microalgae storage and handling systems. These systems not only stabilize biomass by delaying its decomposition but also by increasing its value in downstream conversion, making it easier to break down their cell walls.

Fuel for the human body is typically grown or raised on the farm or in a garden and then stored, either as a dry good or in a refrigerator or freezer. While it’s stored, food can spoil. The same can be said for the biomass used to develop biofuels and bioproducts. After harvest, biomass is stored until it can be processed and it has a shelf life, subject to the same natural decomposition process.

Like many of the foods we regularly enjoy, biomass and microalgae are best used when fresh or well preserved. Physiological and physiochemical processes, like internal heat generation and decomposition, degrade bio-based materials after harvest and collection. The root of the problem is microbial respiration occurring within harvested materials, breaking down large molecules which are converted to carbon dioxide and lost to the atmosphere. These processes can rot or shrink the biomass materials and can even in very rare cases cause spontaneous combustion.

It was while researching corn stover that Dr. Wendt expanded her research scope to include microalgae. Her goal was to manage its moisture and stability challenges.

The microalgae moisture and stability challenges stem from inherently metabolically active conditions due to the combination of actively growing microalgae cells and the diverse bacterial community associated with outdoor cultivation ponds. If left to their own accord in high moisture environments post-harvest, microalgae can lose nearly half their value in one month.

During their research on microalgae, Dr. Wendt and her team identified conditions that shifted microbial communities within microalgae storage ecosystems for preservation and production of value-added metabolic products for downstream conversion, namely as lactic and succinic acids.

Applying lessons learned from her studies on post-harvest microalgae as value-added chemical producers, Dr. Wendt then applied the principle of value-added storage back to corn stover biomass, which ultimately spurred one of her fundamental scientific achievements: developing value-added storage systems for corn stover.

Securing the nation’s supply chains from uncontrolled loss in biomass storage is critical to increased production of decarbonized, sustainable biofuels and products. Through her scientific innovation and team leadership, Dr. Wendt is bridging the gap between fundamental and applied sciences and exploring an approach critical for commercialization of sustainable bioenergy.

Author Nichole Fitzgerald is Program Manager, Feedstock Technologies and Advanced Algal Systems at the Bioenergy Technologies Office of the DOE.

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