Nitrogen Derived from Combined Algal Processing Supports Algae Cultivation for Biofuels

Evan Savage, Nick Nagle, Lieve Laurens, Eric Knoshaug

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus Citations


Algae biomass, a biofuel feedstock with potential to reduce global CO2 emissions, is currently too expensive Nitrogen, a significant input and life cycle cost, requires research on recycling and additional sources to reduce costs. Integral to nitrogen recycling is the knowledge of actual nitrogen requirements in outdoor ponds, thus data from the Unified Field Studies of the Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership was analyzed. The data showed that Nannochloropsis oceanica used 14–24 mg/L NH4+ per harvest cycle for robust growth. Nitrogen recycled directly from the algae conversion process will likely be the primary source of nitrogen for algae cultivation. Harvested algae can be fractionated via Combined Algal Processing (CAP), where algae are pretreated, fermented, and the fuel feedstocks (e. g. ethanol, lipids) are removed leaving a nitrogen rich slurry. Chlorella vulgaris grew robustly in nitrogen-free media supplemented with CAP residues through 4 harvest cycles with no inhibition. The amount of nitrogen as free ammonium available for recycling directly without further processing was insufficient (~4% of total needed), thus the nitrogen fixing bacteria, Azotobacter vinelandii, was investigated as a means for increasing ammonium concentration in CAP residues. This organism was shown to be proficient at growth on sugars liberated from algae biomass during pretreatment and sustained algae growth using A. vinelandii supernatants was also demonstrated. Using Azotobacter to increase ammonium concentrations on-site using an inexpensive biological process to generate the necessary ammonium for outdoor algae cultivation improves sustainability of algae biofuels by avoiding the energy intensive steps of typical ammonium production and transport. These results show that byproducts of algae conversion begin to close nitrogen demand and, with further supplementation by diazotrophic bacteria or protein hydrolysis, may completely replace current energy-intensive and costly industrial nitrogen sources offering a path to increased economic feasibility and improved life cycle analysis of algae-based biofuels.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number101987
Number of pages8
JournalAlgal Research
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-2700-77363


  • Algae cultivation
  • Azotobacter
  • Biofuels
  • Nitrogen recycle


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