A Duke University professor has been awarded a $5.2 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to explore ways of making algae a cost efficient fuel source.

The Duke-led Marine Algae Industrialization Consortium, comprised of both universities and energy companies, aims to lower the cost of algae oil, which can be used in place of fossil fuels. The team is working to identify algae proteins that can be used in protein-based nutritional products in order to make the entire algae farming process more cost-efficient. Zackary Johnson, Arthur P. Kaupe assistant professor of molecular biology in marine science, is the principal investigator of MAGIC and has been researching algae biofuels for eight years.

“The goal of the research is to drive down the cost of algae biofuel by increasing the value of proteins within algae,” Johnson explained.

Johnson and his team at MAGIC are trying to use multiple ways so that algae grown for biofuel extraction can also be sold after oil is extracted from the algae. Proteins in algae could be used for nutritional products such as poultry feed, fish feed or even food for humans. Extracting and selling these proteins would lower the overall production cost of extracting oil from the algae. In the future, algae proteins as food sources might even be a sustainable approach to feed the world.

Algae biofuel has the potential to become a major source of sustainable energy because it can be produced quickly, easily and in high quality, Johnson said.

Marine algae grow fast—with populations roughly doubling with every day of growth. Other biofuel sources, including agricultural crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans, grow very slowly. Algae also do not need fresh water, so marine algae farms can be located in areas that are not suitable for standard crops requiring fresh water. This gives algae and advantage over other biofuels because water is a scarce resource in many areas and most of the planet’s agricultural land is already in use, Johnson explained.

The biggest challenge that algae biofuels face now is one common to all alternative energy sources: high cost.

“In the U.S.—a free market society—people buy the cheapest energy source,” Johnson said.

Without environmental or market regulations for carbon emissions, price is the main barrier towards widespread use of clean energy. Currently, renewable energy sources are more expensive than fossil fuels unless the price of clean energy is subsidized.

Johnson noted that while solar energy in particular has made much progress in the last five years and its price has dropped dramatically, no one renewable energy source has yet become broadly cheaper than traditional energy sources. As a result, MAGIC may be able to make algae a competitive source of energy. Algae oil has potential uses that other sources of renewable energy do not have. In addition to potentially being used for food and animal feed, Johnson explained that algae can produce an energy-rich fuel that can power aircrafts. Since airplanes cannot currently be powered by electricity, solar and wind power are not currently viable options for aircraft fuel.

“A question that I often get is, ‘will algae be the solution to our energy problems?’ The answer is no, but it will be part of the solution,” Johnson said. “I see wind, solar and biofuels as being part of the complete solution.”