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Milton Sommerfeld, co-director of the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) at Arizona State University in the lab with samples of algae biomass, algae oil, residuals and other products from algae biomass.

Milton Sommerfeld, co-director of the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) at Arizona State University in the lab with samples of algae biomass, algae oil, residuals and other products from algae biomass.


A.I.M. Interview: ASU’s Dr. Milton Sommerfeld

October 28, 2012, by David Schwartz

Big algae news in the state of Arizona is the $15 million award by the Department of Energy to Arizona State University to establish a national algae science and technology testbed, dubbed the Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership, or ATP3. Leveraging ASU’s extensive biology and cultivation facilities, as well as a unique and powerful algae brain trust, public and private organizations can now bring in their algae projects, inventions and aspirations for analysis and evaluation.

Arizona Center for Algae Technology

Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) researchers and staff at the Arizona State University and AzCATI booth at the 2012 ABO Summit. (L. to r.) Thomas Dempster, Jessica Cheng, Ranga Rao Ambati, Milton Sommerfeld, Xuezhi Zhang, Qiang Hu, Peter Zemke, Danxiang Han, John McGowen, Yingchun Gong

The origin of this development traces back to a discussion that Dr. Qiang Hu and Dr. Milton Sommerfeld had in 2005, after ASU’s algae program relocated to the Polytechnic campus, in Mesa, AZ. Their move was prompted by access to a new research building, greenhouses and several acres of land adjacent to their research building. Dr. Hu came up with the idea that the fledgling algae industry needed a “testbed” to assist start-up companies or entrepreneurs that were looking at algae as a potential fuel source or food source.

They toyed around with some ideas and put together a 2-page white paper on the idea, but quickly put that on the back burner because their laboratory was already having plenty of success getting funded for laboratory and small field projects to grow algae. So while the timing wasn’t quite right, the need and opportunity were growing to develop a place where they could interact with industry, with academics, and with national labs to assist in moving algae technologies forward.

Qiang Hu and Milton Sommerfeld

Qiang Hu and Milton Sommerfeld, co-directors of the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) at Arizona State University

At the recent ABO Summit Dr. Sommerfeld shared some of his thoughts about this exciting time for ASU, and reminisced a bit on his days with the Aquatic Species Program, a reunion of which got the crowd buzzing in front of the ASU booth.

How did the ATP3 go from a white paper to a proposal?

Well, it took about seven years of incremental steps to build a facility – both laboratory and outdoor facilities – that could actually nurture the industry and help it move forward. We had a lot of help along the way. A key factor was the establishment of the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) on ASU’s Polytechnic campus. Science Foundation Arizona and the Arizona Governor’s office assisted in terms of expanding the outdoor facilities. We were able to convince them that Arizona was the place for development of algae technology.

Through the work of the Sustainable Algal Biofuels Consortium (SABC) that was led by ASU, we established important partnerships and formed good working relationships that demonstrated to the Department of Energy, that our team can deliver. We developed corporate relationships that gave us insight into key issues.

We learned much through this process that has allowed for the expansion of our efforts through the Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3).

Aerial view of outdoor cultivation facilities

Aerial view of outdoor cultivation facilities at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa, AZ.

When the Energy Department sent out the RFP for a testbed, what were they looking for and how close did that come to matching what you already had in existence?

They were looking for a plan to develop and implement a regional algal feedstock testbed partnership. The two tasks identified included collecting data from sites in multiple locations in controlled environments and creating opportunities for scientists to make use of the testbed facilities to further their research and discovery.

Since we were already carrying out testbed type activities at our site, it was a matter of bringing in other sites as partners and developing an organizational plan. Given our past collaborations, we were already in contact with multiple facilities around the country and the world and were aware of many of the issues associated with algae cultivation. We were looking for partners who were interested in solving some of the historic problems in algae cultivation and biomass processing.  Such an association would also allow us to look at broader issues such as climatic effects on the cultivation of different algae strains under different conditions and locations.

So what are the components of the testbed?

Well, the key components are a collaborative open and geographically diverse production and support infrastructure to enable the acceleration of applied algae research, technology development and ultimate commercialization for algae feedstock production for biofuels.

It will be an integrated partnership between academic institutions, national laboratories and commercial enterprises. We’ve already had great success working with companies who wanted us to assist them, to test their concepts, devices and processes. In this particular case we are bringing in partners with facilities that complement ours, as well as national labs who are looking at this from slightly different perspectives, such as processing approaches, modeling and techno-economic and life cycle analyses.

A major focus is to obtain high impact data related to the production of algae in different places, at different times of the year, under different climates, using standard operational and analytical protocols to generate data that will populate computational models to access operational and economic feasibility.

Close up view of small ponds

Close up view of small ponds and panel photobioreactors in the outdoor cultivation facilities at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa, AZ.

So as an example, let’s say some new company comes out with a PBR and they want to get the good housekeeping stamp on it from you folks, what’s the process they go through?

Well, it could be at different levels. For example, if it is a new idea that they want to protect, they may just want us to test and evaluate and provide the data. That’s pretty much a service center type of activity, with the testbed as third party evaluators. We give them the information and they use it however they wish. We’ve done that already with some companies.

So is another part of it is, with the brain trust you have at ASU, to take what they bring in and put your heads together and imagine how it could be improved in various ways?

Yes. The testbed concept is to do things that, broadly speaking, help the entire industry understand algae better in terms of cultivation and processing. However, some companies are specifically interested in the expertise or experience that we can provide regarding algae strains, methodology, or approaches.

We also have an education and training component. We will have workshops, specialty courses, and events to assist companies who want to send their employees for training, or for academic institutions who wish to send students to either ASU or another site for training. We’re currently collaborating with the University of Texas to develop the education and training component. They already offer a course linked to algae cultivation and preservation and we will expand on that.

How would you frame your particular responsibility in this program?

My responsibility in this program is more directed toward education and training. Since, I’ve been in the biofuels from algae field for 30-plus years, I imagine that I will be involved in multiple areas, especially in algae strain selection and improvement.

So how did you connect with this world of algae in the first place?

Well, I received a PhD specializing in algae in 1968, though it was officially a degree in botany. I studied at Washington University in St Louis, under Wayne Nichols, who was trained by Harold Bold. Dr. Bold is well known for his early books and monographs on algae. During my graduate studies I had the opportunity to study the distribution of algae species on both sides of the Panama Canal. I also had the opportunity to study at the Woods Hole Marine Laboratory and to collect and cultivate both marine and fresh water algae in the laboratory. In the laboratory, I was able to carry out fundamental research on the tolerance of algae to different temperatures, light cycles and salinities, and to develop an understanding of the environmental triggers that influenced the life cycles of different types of algae.

After I received my PhD, I accepted a faculty position at Arizona State University. Most plant biology departments in those days included courses in microbiology and in lower plants like mosses and liverworts and algae. I was hired as the algae person. And, as you might expect, the first thing that someone asked me when I got to Arizona was, “How do I get rid of these algae in my swimming pool?” We actually carried out several studies for pool chemical companies that involved identifying the algae that occurred in swimming pools and determining the best way to control them.

Tubular photobioreactors growing microalgae strains

Tubular photobioreactors growing microalgae strains with different pigments (with maroon and gold illustrating Arizona State University colors) at the grand opening of the Arizona Center for Algae Research and Innovation test bed site at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa, AZ

You were on the Aquatic Species Program team. When the DOE put it together, did they come to you or did you go to them?

Actually they came to me. They were looking for algae people in different regions of the country. At that time I was working primarily with algae populations that occurred in natural aquatic systems, including lakes, streams, and springs. We were exploring algae in the diverse environments of Arizona and the Southwest, which included saline environments, brackish water environments, and hot springs.

What started the Aquatic Species Program (ASP) was the oil embargo in the 1970’s. It made the U.S. aware of its dependency on foreign sources of petroleum. When the ASP decided to really focus on identifying algae strains with desirable growth and cellular lipid content, they contacted me and asked if I would be interested in working in the program focusing on the Southwest. I said sure, since I already had graduate students working on the algae in diverse environments of the Southwest. We collected from about 150 aquatic sites throughout the Southwest.

The underlying concept was that we would look for algae that grow in saline water rather than potable water. We selected organisms that had a tolerance to a range of salinities. We collected and isolated about 1500 strains, which then were screened for growth and for oil content. We ultimately deposited 30 of the best strains with the Solar Energy Research Institute, (now NREL). These were algae strains that demonstrated the potential to grow fast (more than a doubling per day) and had a total lipid content of 40% or greater.

Do you see some of the promise of the ASP coming to fruition now with what you’re working on?

Absolutely. I’m thankful for the start that the ASP gave me in this area. Although the ASP program was eventually closed down, it gave many of us a level of enthusiasm about the potential and use of algae for biofuels. Although there was a gap in resource availability following the termination of the ASP, some of us were fortunate enough to be able to continue related work.

Now, in the past five to seven years, with increasing oil prices, we have again looked to the potential of algae, and that has brought a lot of bright people into the field that are focused on the algae to biofuels technology.  When you’ve got many people from different disciplines looking at the critical engineering and biology components, you’re bound to make considerable progress.

So when you come to the ABS and see what’s going on in algae today, what’s your major observation, and your hope for the future?

Well I’m very excited about the future. The diversity of disciplines, number of people engaged, and the innovations that are coming out in the areas of cultivation systems, downstream processing  and the underpinning biology – it gives me a lot of anticipation that we’re going find solutions to the critical problems and make the algae feedstock to biofuels an economically viable and sustainable enterprise.

New technologies have to compete with established technologies. It’s a tough road but I think with the algae we’re going to make it and I’m excited about being part of it.

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