Sandia tackles algae biofuel pond crash problem

SANDIANS Tom Reichardt, left, and Aaron Collins, center, chat with John McGowen of the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI). Sandia has developed several complementary technologies to help the algae industry detect and recover from pond crashes, and is making use of the AzCATI test-bed facility to collect data and apply its technologies. (Photo by Steffan Schulz)

by Mike Janes

Sandia is developing a suite of complementary technologies to help the emerging algae industry detect and quickly recover from algal pond crashes, an obstacle to large-scale algae cultivation for future biofuels.

The research, which focuses on monitoring and diagnosing algal pond health, draws on Sandia’s longstanding expertise in microfluidics technology, its strong bioscience research program, and significant internal investments.

Because of the way algae is grown and produced in most algal ponds, they are prone to attack by fungi, rotifers, viruses, or other predators. Consequently, algal pond collapse is a critical issue that companies must solve to produce algal biofuels cost-effectively. The issue was identified as a key component in DOE’s National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap.

A three-pronged technical approach

Sandia is addressing the algal pond crash issue in three complementary ways:

  • Developing a real-time monitoring tool for algal ponds that can detect indications of a problem days in advance of a crash.
  • Successfully applying pathogen detection and characterization technologies honed through the Labs’ Rapid Threat Organism Recognition (RapTOR) work.
  • Employing its innovative SpinDx diagnostic device to dig deeper into problems after they’ve occurred to identify specific biological agents responsible for crashes.

Sandia’s Tom Reichardt (8128), a researcher who works in Sandia’s remote sensing unit, led development of an online algal reflectance monitor through an internally funded project. The instruments are typically set up alongside the algal pond, continuously monitoring, analyzing the algae’s concentration levels, examining its photosynthesis activity, and performing other diagnostics.

“In real time, it will tell you if things are going well with the growth of your algae or whether it’s beginning to show signs of trouble,” says Tom. However, he cautions, while this real-time monitoring will warn pond operators when the ponds have been attacked, it may not be able to identify the attacker.

Quick ID is key

To help pinpoint the problems, a Sandia team led by researcher Todd Lane (8623) recently developed a process to quickly and accurately identify pond crash agents through ultra-high-throughput sequencing using RapTOR.

RapTOR, originally developed for homeland security purposes, was developed to solve the “unknown unknowns” problem — lethal agents that could be weaponized from ordinary viruses or disguised to look harmless. It was designed to serve as a tool to rapidly characterize a biological organism with no pre-existing knowledge.

Todd’s team also created a method for creating a field-ready assay for those agents, something that works quickly and is relatively inexpensive. They are applying SpinDx, a device developed by other Sandia/California researchers that can, among other capabilities, analyze important protein markers and process up to 64 assays from a single sample, all in a matter of minutes.

Finally, a Sandia team led by researcher Jeri Timlin (8622), in collaboration with the University of Nebraska’s Van Etten Lab, enhanced the RapTOR diagnostics by studying interactions of a certain virus with algal cells. Using hyperspectral imaging, they identified spectroscopic signatures of viral infections arising from changes in algal pigmentation. These signatures potentially could be exploited for early detection and subsequent mitigation of viral infections in algal ponds.

An ‘arsenal’ for pond operators

“It’s important for the growth of an algal industry to develop a method where algal pond operators can learn immediately when there’s a problem with their ponds from a biological agent standpoint,” says Todd. “It’s equally important that they learn — within a very short period of time, like 24 hours — what specific agent is eating away at their algae, and have a technology available that could develop an assay to combat the agent. Our tools come very close to accomplishing all of those things.

“We couldn’t really do an exhaustive characterization of all of the kinds of agents that could be at the root of pond crashes,” Todd says. “But we confirmed some that had been identified before, and we found some others that weren’t familiar to the research community. The important achievement was to develop the methodology, which hadn’t existed before.”

In practical terms, the process developed by Sandia involves a central facility where pond operators would send samples of agents that have appeared in their ponds, and assays that could be deployed back to the pond site. That’s where SpinDx comes in.

Pond site operators, Todd says, know their environments best and, especially with instruments like those developed by Tom, understand the signs that could indicate “sick” ponds. He envisions pond operators using a SpinDx-like device as part of their regular arsenal of equipment so they could run early detection tests whenever they sensed instability in their ponds. They could then provide samples to an off-site facility, which in turn would send back assays to allow the operator to investigate the problem more thoroughly and ward off pond crashes before they occur.

“That’s the beauty of SpinDx,” says Todd. “The disks are inexpensive, require little technical expertise, and can be manipulated by non-scientists.”

Next step: More robust demonstrations

Now that the core principles of pathogen detection and characterization technologies for pond crash forensics have been successfully proved, the next step will be to conduct more robust demonstrations. Serendipitously, Todd’s and Tom’s groups will be continuing their work as part of the Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3) led by Arizona State University (ASU), the first national algae testbed. The Sandia team will apply the technologies, collect more data, and seek additional collaborations.

“Our results over these past couple of years have been compelling, but now we need to deploy the technology into real-world ponds,” Todd explains. The original work, he says, has moved from the laboratory environment into the operational realm, with only modest research and development now necessary.

Sandia will make use of an algal test bed facility at ASU known as the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI). The facility features algal ponds and closed photobioreactor algae cultivation systems of various sizes and serves as a hub for research, testing, and commercialization of algae-based products.

To view brief interviews of Sandia remote sensing researcher Tom Reichardt, Sandia biochemist Aaron Collins (8622) and AcCATI program manager John McGowen, visit Sandia’s YouTube channel.

-- Mike Janes

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Growing algae, fuel of the future, from benchtop to raceway

GREEN TEA? - Kylea Parchert (8622) left, and Anne Ruffing (8622) right, were part of a team to learn more about the fundamental biology of algae, causes of productivity, and how to sustain algal populations.

by Stephanie Hobby

Biofuels from algae are a promising option to help reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, but there is still a lot to learn about the tiny green organisms before we can start relying on them to fuel our cars.

A highly interdisciplinary team led by Jeri Timlin (8622) embarked on a three-year, multidisciplinary LDRD project to learn more about the fundamental biology of algae, what makes it productive, and how to sustain populations from the benchtop to the raceway.

The project took a three-tiered approach to better understand how to turn algal ponds into usable fuel. The first goal was to better understand the basic biology of algae, including the effects environmental stressors have on growth and lipid production. The team used input from those experiments to devise technology that could perform real-time monitoring of the health, growth, and productivity of the algae. Having such knowledge in the field would help growers take actions that would result in more productive algal harvests. Finally, the third goal was to incorporate all of that knowledge to build a model for algae health and productivity at the large, open-channel raceway-style ponds.

Systems at work in an algae pond are complex

“What many companies are focused on is the production goal – growing as many gallons of algal biofuels a year as possible – and they use empirical knowledge and prior experience to attempt to grow algae favorably, but key information linking environmental conditions to algal response is missing,” Jeri says. “So our underlying theme was to understand the fundamental relationships of algae and their environment.”

The systems at work in an algae pond are complex, and stressors, such as tweaks to heat, light, pH, and salinity, abound. It isn’t well understood how an individual cell will respond to a given stressor, and even very similar algae can respond differently to the same environmental conditions. To make matters more complicated, several stressors are dynamic and often changing. What makes it even trickier is how fast those responses happen.

An unfavorable change in conditions can take a healthy pond to the verge of collapse in only a matter of hours to a day, as compared to traditional agriculture, which can take days and weeks to respond to changes in the environment.  In such a fast-paced, high-stakes environment, algal growers would really benefit from automated ways to monitor their ponds in real time and have information to make decisions quickly. If a grower can’t keep up with changing conditions, the consequences can be costly.

The Algal Biofuels Roadmap, produced by the Biomass Program of DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in 2010, suggests developing a toolkit to help growers make better decisions at the pond level. Ideally, this toolkit would provide sensitive, selective methods to predict and identify early fluctuations in algal health and productivity. Such capabilities would lead to increased productivity and an extended growing cycle, and ultimately reduce costs associated with producing algal biofuels.

Examining spectral signatures

One way to do that is by using spectroscopy and/or hyperspectral imaging to identify biomarkers, unique biological flags whose presence indicate something is amiss. Photosynthetic pigment molecules that harvest sunlight and convert it to chemical energy within the algal cells interact in a specific way with the different wavelengths of light. This forms the basis for its spectral signature, and like fingerprints, every signature is unique. Taking advantage of the many advanced bioanalytical imaging techniques and remote sensing technologies that Sandia is known for, Jeri and her colleagues, Thomas Reichardt (8128), Howland Jones (8622), and Aaron Collins (8622) identified hyperspectral reflectance and fluorescence biomarkers for algal growth and productivity at the subcellular, single cell and ensemble levels. By examining the spectral signatures, the team was able to assess algal health by measuring growth and productivity at the lab, greenhouse, and raceway scales. 

Specifically, these experiments provided information on areas such as the efficiency of carbon dioxide capture in collaboration with professor David Hanson at the University of New Mexico, a necessary step for photosynthesis, and how the gas gets converted into the fuel-rich lipids in algae. Additionally, Amy Powell (8635) and Kylea Parchert (8622) studied genetic regulation in high salt conditions, which are very important considerations when siting algal ponds in the desert Southwest. Such understandings are important to engineer and operate an algal biofuel production plant. 

Of the available algae growth options, outdoor open ponds are attractive because they are cost-effective to build and maintain. Such ponds offer the most bang for the buck, but there are more factors to consider in raceway style ponds. Temperature, incident radiation, whether to cover a pond with a greenhouse, nutrient distribution and availability, depth flow characteristics, geometry and channel dimensions, and predation all have an impact on algal health, and are much more difficult to control in a raceway pond. Previously, Sandia researchers Scott James and Patricia Gharagazloo (8365) had begun to develop a computational model, which relied on modified versions of models from the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers, to predict algal growth in outdoor raceways under a variety of system configurations.

“Using our discoveries in basic algal biology and the technology we developed, we were able to replace variable relationships gathered from sparse literature with highly improved and accurate measurements relevant to production strains of algae. This results in a predictive model where you could change conditions or understand — using a computer — what is going to happen to a pond without building it,” Jeri says.

The LDRD wrapped up last year, and Jeri says she is thrilled with the amount of knowledge her project contributed to both the industry and Sandia. “We brought several of Sandia’s capabilities together in a unique and interdisciplinary fashion to study a largely unexplored area of biofuels,” Jeri says. “In doing that, we made important contributions to Sandia’s biofuels infrastructure, developed new technical capabilities that enabled key algal biology discoveries, and helped add more visibility to Sandia’s biofuels program. It is important work, and I’m extremely pleased with the hard work of our team and our contributions to the field.”

-- Stephanie Hobby

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Sandia physicist takes command of Air Natl. Guard 150th

TAKING COMMAND - Physicist Clark Highstrete (5643) is the new commander of the Air National Guard 150th Fighter Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base. He says the post is the ultimate test of what a traditional, part-time Guard member can accomplish. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

by Nancy Salem

Clark Highstrete has walked two paths in his professional life. One went toward science and led to physics research at Sandia. The other went to the skies and a career as an Air Force pilot.

Clark works in Sandia's Quantum Information Sciences Dept. 5643 and is a colonel in the New Mexico Air National Guard with more than 2,500 flying hours including 200 in combat in Bosnia and Iraq. He recently assumed command of the Guard's 150th Fighter Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base, made up of more than 900 airmen. He previously was director of operations for the New Mexico Air National Guard, responsible for strategic planning and policy, and oversight and guidance for its missions.

"Science and the Air Force have both been very rewarding parts of my professional life," Clark says. "I've been fortunate to have such fantastic opportunities on both sides."

The 150th Fighter Wing, whose missions involve security police, logistics, and medical services, has been known since its days in Vietnam as the Tacos. The Tacos' F-16 fighter jets were transferred to other fighter wings in 2010 when the Pentagon opted to speed up retirement of its fourth-generation fighters in favor of fifth-generation stealth fighters.

Since then the 150th has taken on four new missions, including a merger with Kirtland's 58th Special Operations Wing, training crews on MC/HC-130 aircraft and two types of helicopters. The 150th also picked up a rapidly deployable engineering unit known as Red Horse and an Intelligence Target Production Center that does imagery and computer analysis for target planning.

Quantum information

Clark says he has long felt the pull of two professions.

He graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 1989 with a bachelor's degree in applied physics. He was commissioned out of college by the University of Southern California ROTC program and served on active duty from 1990 to 2000. He first completed pilot training, but there weren't a lot of flying assignments at that time. He was assigned to use his physics degree in acquisition management at Los Angeles Air Force Base. He also did an internship in physics research with Aerospace Corp.

Clark was called back to fly and served from 1993 to 2000 as an F-16 pilot, mission commander, and instructor pilot. He left the Air Force to attend graduate school in New Mexico. "I had two very distinct interests," Clark says. "I was interested in flying and military service. I also wanted to pursue a science career. I thought the best mix for me was to continue doing the operational military role as a citizen airman in the Air National Guard. I could do that part time and pursue a scientific career on the civilian side. I also wanted to dedicate my technical work toward national security, so New Mexico was a logical choice."

Clark joined the Guard in Albuquerque as a full-time instructor then went to traditional part-time status to begin graduate school. He earned a master's of science and a doctorate in physics from the University of New Mexico. He joined Sandia in 2004 as a student intern, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship. He became a full-time Sandia staff member in 2010.

"I have a pretty diverse background in physics," Clark says. He started graduate school in quantum information sciences and did his Sandia internship in solid-state physics examining high-frequency electronic properties of nanomaterials. At Sandia his research also has included ion trapping for quantum information science applications. He now does a mix of research and program management in a variety of technical areas.

Pave the way

Clark's post as 150th Fighter Wing commander is part time. "The traditional guardsman is the cornerstone of the National Guard," he says. "The central principle is the militia construct provided in the Constitution and realized in the National Guard."

Clark says his vision and motivation throughout his military career have been to take on challenges that reinforce the importance of the traditional Guard member in US society. "Taking on leadership roles and more challenges requires more effort, but I look to that to set an example of what a traditional guardsman can and should be," he says.

He says his role as Wing commander is the ultimate test of that. "Part of the challenge I was given was to pave the way, to show how it can be done," he says. "We haven't had a traditional commander in recent memory. Our New Mexico guardsmen are all highly dedicated, selfless, and professional airmen. The adjutant general has made the service of our traditional Guard members in particular a top priority. What better way to emphasize and realize that priority than to have a traditional guardsman as a commander?"

He says his dual path is possible because of the support of an excellent staff and vice commander, Col. Joel Harris, and the enthusiastic support of his Sandia management. "Sandia is exceptional in its support of the Guard and Reserves," he says. "I have been consistently supported throughout my Air National Guard service. Without that, I could not have done it."

-- Nancy Salem

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