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Honolulu Star-Bulletin: UH leads ‘huge’ biofuel effort

A unique project on the Kona Coast aims to produce useable energy from algae

Vol. 12, Issue 358 – Monday, December 24, 2007

By Helen Altonn
[email protected]

University of Hawaii researchers have a significant role in a multimillion-dollar deal with Royal Dutch Shell, Europe’s largest oil company, to produce biofuel from microalgae.

“This is huge,” said Robert Bidigare, director of the Center for Microbial Ecology and Diversity. “It will put UH on the map in terms of sustainable biodiesel from microalgae.”

Bidigare said two years of negotiations and planning preceded an announcement by Shell Dec. 11 that it had formed a joint venture company with HR BioPetroleum for the project on the Kona Coast.

It is called Cellana, after the genus for opihi, the Hawaiian shellfish that lives on algae, he noted.

HR BioPetroleum owners are Mark Huntley, a UH researcher in oceanography, and C. Barry Raleigh, a researcher in the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute and former dean of the UH School of Ocean, Earth Science and Technology.

The partnership with Shell evolved from a paper Huntley wrote about scientific advances that would make biodiesel from microalgae economical, Bidigare said.

Huntley said he had been on leave from UH and wanted to return full time and apply for tenure, so he wrote a paper in 2004 with a colleague at the University of Mississippi. It was based on his experiences raising algae on the Kona Coast as chief executive officer of Aquasearch, which was reorganized as Mera Pharmaceuticals.

“We revisited the notion hatched in the ’80s about producing oil from algae,” Huntley said.

He said he sent the paper to some scientists for their comments, and one in the United Kingdom asked if he could show it to a “client.” The client turned out to be a Shell Oil group called the “Game Changers,” scientists and engineers who look for innovative solutions to problems.

About eight months later, Shell Oil asked to talk with him, Huntley said.

Raleigh encouraged him to submit a patent application, and they formed HR BioPetroleum, Huntley said.

Bidigare said a team of scientists hand-picked by Huntley from UH, the University of Southern Mississippi and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, prepared a proposal nearly 3 inches thick. “It was an unbelievable effort.”

UH scientists had been growing algae at Kona for biodiesel and other biofuels under a National Defense Center grant to Raleigh for ocean research.

That grant ended in October, and work funded by Shell will continue at Mera Pharmaceutical’s facility, Bidigare said. The project will transfer to the Cellana demonstration facility when it is completed, he said. Construction has begun on a 6-acre site leased from the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority.

“We’re in charge of making the algae, and they’re (Shell) in charge of taking it and converting it into fuel,” Bidigare said.

Huntley said if the research project is a success, the next step would be construction of a 2,500-acre demonstration commercial facility at an undetermined site.

Zachary Johnson, a UH oceanographer on the microalgae team, described three major research components aimed at identifying and maximizing production of algae with the best vegetable oil for biofuel.

Researcher Susan Brown will try to isolate and cultivate organisms naturally high in vegetable oil. Bidigare will measure proteins and lipids or vegetable oil in different strains of algae. And Johnson will lead a screening group with the University of Mississippi and Canadian scientists to characterize the algae and conditions that allow high production of vegetable oil.

The team also will work on microalgae in the Manoa Innovation Center with UH horticulturist Heidi Kuehnle of Kuehnle AgroSystems Co. Other UH scientists involved are Charley O’Kelly, a botanist, and Hank Trapido-Rosenthal, working on genetic identification of algae.

Other byproducts also can be produced from microalgae once oil is removed, Bidigare said, such as high-quality protein for animal feed and possibly even human consumption.

The demonstration facility will also use bottled carbon dioxide to explore the potential of an algae cultivation facility absorbing or capturing waste CO2 from power plants or other industrial facilities.

“You don’t wean yourself entirely from fossil fuels,” Huntley said, “but certainly this is a means of reducing consumption significantly.”

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