Tampa Bay Clean Cities Coalition (TBCCC)
Tampa Bay Taps Into Renewable Energy from Biomass and Algae
Interview with Dr. George Philippidis, USF Biofuels and Bioproducts Lab Director
TAMPA, Fla. (Jan. 29, 2016) – As the demand for sustainable, renewable fuel sources increases, progress in algae and biomass technologies continues to evolve, advancing the country towards a diversified, cleaner energy base for the U.S. economy. Biofuels are an integral part of the alternative energy portfolio's efforts to meet transportation needs, while reducing carbon emissions and our nation's dependence on imported petroleum.
Biofuels are domestically produced, renewable fuels that offer environmental, sustainability, and energy security advantages over traditional fossil-fuel sources, such as petroleum. Algal biofuels use algae as a source of natural oils. The algae used are specifically microalgae consisting of small, aquatic organisms that convert sunlight into energy. These microalgae produce enough oil to convert into renewable fuels, such as biodiesel, diesel, and jet fuels. The Bioenergy Technologies Office's Algae Program, under the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, is conducting a pilot program for long-term applied research and development in algal biotechnology, including research that addresses technical barriers to adoption. Last summer, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $18 million in funding for research projects aimed at reducing the cost of algae-based biofuel production.
The Patel College of Global Sustainability's Biofuels and Bioproducts Lab at the University of South Florida (USF) is at the forefront of research into the commercialization of biofuels and bioproducts here in Tampa Bay. Associate professor Dr. George Philippidis leads a team of researchers who are investigating the production of biofuels and bioproducts from renewable resources, such as algae, biomass, and vegetable oils. Their applied research focuses on closing the gap between the laboratory and the market place with emphasis on algae cultivation, biomass conversion to value-added products, and renewable biodiesel production.
Dr. Philippidis, who is also a Steering Committee member for the Tampa Bay Clean Cities Coalition (TBCCC), spoke at this week's National Biodiesel Conference and Expo. The annual event, which was held this year at the Tampa Convention Center from January 25-28, provides a venue for biodiesel producers, researchers, students, automakers, and industry and government leaders to interact, learn, and address current issues. As Tampa Bay prepared to host this important event, TBCCC sat down with Dr. Philippidis to discuss his research on algae- and biomass-derived biofuels and advances in the renewable fuel sector.
TBCCC: What makes your research unique in the field of biofuels?
Dr. Philippidis: "Here at USF, the Biofuels and Bioproducts Lab focuses on the development of biofuels and bioproducts from two sustainable sources, algae and biomass. Our work involves developing the technologies needed to convert biomass (anything green), algae, and vegetable oils into fuels, products, and electricity. What differentiates our lab from labs elsewhere is our focus on applied research that helps bring clean technology ideas to the market place.
"We are trying to close the gap between concepts that can be tested in the lab at small scale and commercial deployment – this is the gap that usually kills a lot of ideas because nobody closes that gap. For that reason we work closely with the private sector."
TBCCC: Can you explain a little further the advantages of using algae and biomass for biofuels production?
Dr. Philippidis: "By utilizing natural and renewable resources, we can contribute to a more sustainable economy and life with less pollution and impact on the planet. For example, we are examining ways to utilize low-quality water, such as brackish water and wastewater, to cultivate algae, so that we do not deplete freshwater resources. The other good thing about algae is that they absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) very aggressively, which is good for combating climate change. By using algae, we are removing CO2 from the atmosphere. By providing the algae with sunlight, CO2, and water we enable them to grow quickly and produce a variety of products that are sustainable thanks to their small carbon footprint.
"At the same time, the biomass sources we use are in the form of agricultural residues, so we are not touching the crops, but rather their fibers, which is considered waste in some respects. Examples are the fibers from sugarcane, wheat straw, corn stover, and yard waste – these are all examples of biomass that can be converted with the technologies we are developing into renewable fuels, products, and electricity."
TBCCC: The Midwest region of the U.S. is known for its ample production of corn and soybeans that are utilized for biofuel production, such as ethanol and biodiesel. Can you explain why Florida, in particular, is a good location for biofuels research and development?
Dr. Philippidis: "First of all, Florida has plenty of natural resources and an ideal climate for both algae and biomass. Actually, Florida is the number-one state in annual generation of biomass in the country. In South Florida, we have sugarcane bagasse; in Central Florida we have a lot of citrus and other agricultural crops that can also generate biomass; and in North Florida we have forests that generate woody biomass –by managing them and actively collecting the biomass.
"The climate is also a major factor. Florida has good weather year round, and the high humidity levels in summer help a lot. Florida has a combination of sun, warm weather, and a significant amount of under-utilized land. Also, thanks to its excellent geographic position, Florida has easy access to Latin American and European markets though several major ports. Florida universities, such as USF, are leaders in renewable energy research. All these conditions make our state an excellent place for research, development, and entrepreneurship in the energy sector."
TBCCC: You talked a little bit before about how your lab works with private industry, and particularly your research partnerships with local businesses. What are some of the benefits of working directly with the private sector?
Dr. Philippidis: "The first benefit is that we understand the real world better. We comprehend what the needs are, what the restrictions are, and we calibrate our research and focus it on producing something that is both functional and cost-competitive. We realize that products will be brought to the marketplace by the private sector. As part of USF, a university that nurtures and values innovation, we have positioned ourselves to partner with industry, so that we can see our ideas and patents reach the market place. We are pleased that USF is now #10 in the country in patents granted and a leading institution in incubating ideas and assisting start-up companies in the Tampa Bay area and across Florida."
TBCCC: What are some of the biggest changes you think we can expect to see in the next decade or two in the renewable fuels and energy sectors? What should we be on the lookout for?
Dr. Philippidis: "The country has to move towards a more sustainable economy. There is a lot of concern about both energy security and climate change. The Paris COP 21 emphasized the global concern about climate change, so knowing that renewable energy comes with a very low carbon footprint will definitely be a cornerstone for the green and sustainable economy of the future. I think great opportunities lie on this path."
TBCCC: You were recently awarded the prestigious 2016-2017 Fulbright Fellowship. Can you share any other exciting news about the PCGS Biofuels and Bioproducts Lab?
Dr. Philippidis: "In the last three years we have been working closely with industry and the Energy Office of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to develop a new system, where we can grow pretty much any algae both productively and cost-effectively. We have made good progress: we have scaled up the technology, developed prototypes, filed for a patent, and identified companies that would be interested in licensing this technology from USF. We have started publishing in peer-review journals and presented our findings at prestigious international events, including the Biotechnology Industry Organization Convention, the Algae Biomass Organization Summit, and the European Biomass Conference & Exhibition. We are also getting a lot of interest from companies in Europe and South America with an interest in using our technology in their operations.
"We are proud of the fact that we represent the Patel College of Global Sustainability and USF as we try to help make our state and country a better place to live. It's very exciting and rewarding."
To learn more about biodiesel and other alternative fuels, check out the Alternative Fuels Data Center at http://www.afdc.energy.gov/ and visit the Tampa Bay Clean Cities Coalition website at tampabaycleancities.org.
To check out event highlights and photos from the 2016 National Biodiesel Conference and Expo, visit http://biodieselconference.org/2016/.
For more information on the National Biodiesel Board, visit http://biodiesel.org
Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, "Energy 101: Algae-to-Fuel," "Algal Biofuels," "Energy Department." http://energy.gov.
Patel College of Global Sustainability, "Biofuels and Bioproducts Development." http://www.usf.edu/pcgs/research/biofuels-bioproduct-development.aspx