While the U.S. Department of Energy has been busy awarding grants to green jobs training programs for the past year, the agency is also awarding funding to transportation-based research projects. The DOE recently awarded up to $24 million to three algal biofuels research projects.

Although corn-based ethanol is a popular biofuel, its long-term sustainability is in question. Because of these concerns, research into other types of biofuels is necessary to help the United States reduce its dependence on oil in the transportation sector.

Two of the three projects will receive up to $9 million in DOE funding including the Consortium for Algal Biofuels Commercialization, led by the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and the Cellana, LLC Consortium based out of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The third project, the Sustainable Algal Biofuels Consortium, is led by Arizona State University (ASU) and will receive up to $6 million in DOE funding.

Each of these three projects has a different focus: The UCSD-led project will be focusing on new ways to protect algal crops, developing genetic tools, and working on nutrient utilization and recycling. The Cellana project will focus on large-scale production of fuels generated by microalgae grown in seawater and working on new harvesting technologies. The ASU consortium will examine the feasibility of replacing petroleum-based fuel with algal-based biofuels.

According to the DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Assistant Secretary Cathy Zoi, “The United States must find effective ways to hasten the development of technologies for advanced biofuels made from algae and other renewable resources to reduce our need for foreign sources of oil.” Source: DOE

However, there are both technical and economic challenges that are standing in the way of widespread production and adoption of algal biofuels. In order to help address these challenges, the DOE has created the National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap (PDF). The Roadmap was created based on the data generated during the National Algal Biofuels Workshop that was held in late 2008. The data presented in the Roadmap will help guide the researchers involved in these three algal biofuel projects that have just received DOE funding.

While it may be a long time until we see algal-based biofuels at the local gas station, the research being conducted today may just change the face of the transportation fuel industry of tomorrow.