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Science  31 Oct 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6209, pp. 562-564
DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6209.562

31 October 2014

Edited by Kathy Wren

Can algae make the big time in renewable energy?

Researchers in Puerto Rico see a promising future for algae-based biofuel, though economic and regulatory questions remain

Entrepreneurs plan to use this abandoned shrimp farm in Puerto Rico to grow algae that will be converted into biofuel.

PHOTO: MARIO VELASCO/JORGE GASKINS

Sugarcane plantations used to dominate the coastal landscape around Dorado, Puerto Rico, about 20 miles west of San Juan. But agriculture on the island declined in the mid–20th century, and then saltwater crept into the water table here. Now, a company called Bio-Lípidos de Puerto Rico Inc./Replenish Energy wants to use this area for what it hopes will become a major part of the island's energy portfolio: algae.

The company plans to grow single-celled, marine “microalgae,” whose oil will be extracted to form the feedstock for biodiesel and other types of fuel. The dried remains will be used in a variety of products, from plastics to beauty products. Some of the algae will also become food for cultured shrimp and tilapia, whose waste, in turn, will be used to fertilize the algae.

A 320-acre pilot project on an abandoned shrimp farm is now shovel-ready, and more than half of the funding is in place. The company has received multiple investment offers pending a successful field trial, according to co-founder Jorge Gaskins. The biggest challenge ahead, he said at the annual meeting of the AAAS Caribbean Division, is that the Puerto Rican government has yet to clarify many elements of its biofuel policy, including which agencies would promote and regulate the industry and how available EPA tax incentives would be implemented.

Despite this uncertainty, Gaskins and other speakers at the meeting believe that marine algae represents an important opportunity for renewable energy in Puerto Rico and other countries with an abundance of sunlight, warm temperatures, and coastal waters. They made their case at the 20 September meeting, which drew roughly 100 scientists, students, and educators to the University of Turabo. Founded in 1985, the AAAS Caribbean Division serves as a hub for AAAS members in all of the islands and countries in the Caribbean region.

AAAS Council Reminder

The next meeting of the AAAS Council will take place during the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, California, and will begin at 9:00 a.m. on 15 February 2015 in the Almaden Ballroom of the Hilton San Jose.

Individuals or organizations wishing to present proposals or resolutions for possible consideration by the council should submit them in written form to AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner by 1 December 2014. This will allow time for them to be considered by the Committee on Council Affairs at its winter meeting.

Items should be consistent with AAAS's objectives and be appropriate for consideration by the council. Resolutions should be in the traditional format, beginning with “Whereas” statements and ending with “Therefore be it resolved.”

Late proposals or resolutions delivered to the AAAS Chief Executive Officer in advance of the February 2015 open hearing of the Committee on Council Affairs will be considered, provided that they deal with urgent matters and are accompanied by a written explanation of why they were not submitted by the 1 December deadline. The Committee on Council Affairs will hold its open hearing at 2:30 p.m. on 14 February 2015 in the Santa Clara Room of the Hilton San Jose.

“Puerto Rico could produce a significant fraction of our total energy requirements using marine biomass if we make reasonable reductions in total energy consumption,” said Gary Gervais, a research associate in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico's Río Piedras campus.

As the effects of climate change mount, the need for renewable energy sources has become clear, especially in Puerto Rico, where as of 2012 only 1% of its electricity came from renewable sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The government has adopted a policy requiring 20% of net electricity sales to come from renewable energy resources by 2035.

Compared to other sources of biofuel, such as corn, soybeans, or sugarcane, algae have a lot to offer. They grow quickly, especially in the consistently warm Caribbean; they are relatively efficient oil producers; and they don't require irrigation. Many species are also good multitaskers; Catalina Dávila, a postdoctoral student at the University of Puerto Rico, has identified a Botryococcus species in Puerto Rico's brackish waters whose fatty acid profile makes it a good candidate for biofuel. And, because it efficiently removes nutrients from water, this microalgae may also be useful in waste-water treatment.

Macroalgae, or seaweeds, are also potential biofuel sources, although further research will be necessary to understand the ecological effects of farming seaweed. For example, blocking sunlight at the surface will likely impact life in deeper waters, said Agnerys Rodriguez-Santos, a technician in Gervais' lab.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about growing algae for biofuel is they don't require land that would otherwise be used for growing food, a key drawback for other biofuel crops. In Puerto Rico, however, largescale algae cultivation would compete with the tourism industry for valuable coastal real estate. “The idea of a marine farm is very hard to talk about” with local land-use and regulatory agencies, said Gervais, who suggested that other Caribbean islands or the Caribbean coastline of Central or South American countries may be more practical locations for algae farming if the industry does scale up.

In the meantime, researchers are working to determine the most environmentally friendly and cost-effective ways to turn algae into fuel. Many involve extracting oils or synthesizing biocrude oil from raw biomass. And Gervais has developed a system for producing biogas from seaweed via anaerobic digestion in an oxygen-free bioreactor.

None of these approaches has yet been able to offer a means for making algae biofuel competitive with petroleum, however. For example, Arnulfo Rojas-Pérez, a graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico, is studying an approach called hydrothermal liquefaction, which uses hot, pressurized water instead of a chemical solvent to produce biocrude. This method is appealing because it doesn't require drying the algae, but even so, it has not been used in a successful commercial operation yet.

That may change soon, as the industry continues to progress. A 2013 report by the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts, a consortium of U.S. national laboratories, universities, and corporations, identified several technological advances in the last 3 years that have the potential to bring the price of algae-based biocrude down to $7.50 per gallon. Next, significant reductions in capital and operational expenditures will be needed to bring the cost down to $2.00 per gallon, making it more competitive with petroleum, the report concludes.

Ebola crisis reveals gaps in public health response

As health care workers have struggled to stop the disease, they have been hampered by a lack of infrastructure and training

Hygienists at the Ebola treatment unit at Island Clinic in Monrovia wash health workers' scrubs at the new clinic, which opened 21 September and was filled to capacity a day later.

PHOTO: FLICKR/MORGANA WINGARD FOR USAID

West Africa was already lacking in trained health care workers, but the 2014 Ebola crisis has devastated their small number. Melvin Korkor, an attending physician at a hospital in remote Bong County in Liberia, was one of the survivors. Nine of his colleagues, including five nurses, became infected and died early in the outbreak. “I was so compassionate in my profession to the extent that I had to touch one of the nurses,” he said. A few days after she died, Korkor fell sick. “I isolated myself from my family,” he said.

By the time he recovered, his hospital was closed but still had a lot of patients needing care. “We're going to reopen our hospital,” he pledged, “but we're going to need to stop the transmission of Ebola.”

The Ebola crisis has quickly grown into the most difficult health security problem faced by the modern world, but it is also providing opportunities to better prepare nations for future health emergencies, said speakers at a conference on global health security.

“We need to capitalize on this moment. As deep and humanly unsettling as this moment is, shame on us if we can't build from it,” said Laura Holgate, senior director for weapons of mass destruction terrorism and threat reduction for the White House National Security Council.

Holgate and others gathered in Washington, D.C., on 25 September for a conference addressing the role of nongovernmental organizations in the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), which was held at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University and co-sponsored by AAAS, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, CORDS: Connecting Organizations for Regional Disease Surveillance, the UPMC Center for Health Security, the Elizabeth R. Griffin Research Foundation, and the CSIS Global Health Policy Center.

The conference preceded the release of 11 “action packages” by GHSA to focus international discussion and efforts to prevent, rapidly detect, and effectively respond to infectious disease threats. Representatives of 44 nations and institutions, including the World Health Organization, met on 26 September at the White House to discuss implementation of the action plans.

Laura Holgate, Keiji Fukuda, and J. Stephen Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that the Ebola crisis offers an opportunity to strengthen the global health response. Improving support and training for first responders such as Liberian physician Melvin Korkor (above) will be critical.

PHOTOS: RICK REINHARD/GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY

The outbreak has revealed vulnerabilities in health care infrastructure, training, and technology, speakers said. For instance, there is no quick and cheap diagnostic test for Ebola yet, which slowed the first identification of the disease in West Africa. “If there had been rapid diagnostics at any of many points of intervention between December, when the first case occurred, and March, when it was finally diagnosed…it could have had an incredible impact,” said Thomas Inglesby, director of the UPMC Center for Health Security.

If new tests are developed, they will have to work in environments that may lack electricity, clean water, and sanitation facilities. These same deficits are already hindering care in West African hospitals, said Patty Olinger, the director of global programs at the Elizabeth R. Griffin Research Foundation, at a panel discussion organized by AAAS's Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy. When Olinger visited the region's clinics, she found that water was collected in some cases from a river and lighting sometimes came from kerosene lanterns. At one hospital, laundry from infectious patients was mixed with everyone else's, she said.

Ebola has overwhelmed the public health systems in West Africa and left those with non-Ebola diseases without any place to go. “We have no idea—I don't know if we ever will—how many people have died of non–Ebola-related causes,” said Joseph Fair, a virologist and senior advisor to Fondation Mérieux, which is dedicated to fighting infectious diseases. “We've seen a complete breakdown in an already vulnerable public health infrastructure.”

That infrastructure is only now starting to develop after more than a decade of civil conflict in West Africa. The legacy of that conflict also has contributed to a mentality that “run and flee” is the best response to a crisis, Fair said. Past Ebola outbreaks have been contained because it was possible to identify and segregate infected individuals, then trace and track anyone with whom they may have come in contact. That has not happened in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

Educating West Africans about disease and sanitation is crucial, and the messages must be tailored to the people who are to receive it, noted several speakers. The region also needs more trained medical workers, but there are no dedicated academic institutions or programs that are able to research and train the multidisciplinary specialists needed to respond to disasters such as Ebola, said Laud Boateng, a public health physician from Ghana who is currently a Mandela Washington Fellow working on an Ebola education campaign for African youth.

“The Ebola outbreak highlights where we are vulnerable and what remains to be done,” said Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security at the World Health Organization.

Science and Science Translational Medicine have made their collection of research and news articles on Ebola freely available to researchers and the general public at www.sciencemag.org/site/extra/ebola/.

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