Spring of Algae: The Algae Prize is born

January 25, 2022 |

Since the summer of last year, a cadre of algae and energy R&D veterans have been hammering away to create The Algae Prize, to catalyze student teams to tackle Production, Downstream Processing, Identification of Novel Products or Tools and compete for $130,000 in prizes, in a $300,000 initiative now sponsored by the US Department of Energy, NREL and The Algae Foundation. Good use of a summer.

I wrongly get the credit for coining the phrase “the Summer of Algae” to refer to the 2008-2012 algae investment craze — it probably first got national attention in the Digest in 2009 or 2010, but I can’t remember who said it. The good news that everyone focused on back then? Algae breed faster than rabbits and get fatter than Mama Cass.

The bad news, which you can get from your Friendly Corner Naysayer, is that algae were born at the bottom of the food chain, designed to die, and even if you can keep them alive, you have to get the water out of the algae or the algae out of the water.

Nature does it very well. Make a zillion tons of algae, let it die and sink to the bottom of the Seven Seas, come back in 50 million years, you will have petroleum, and more or less you just pump it out of the cracks. Easy peasy.

Two problems there. First of all, by the year 50,002,022, that algae-based energy will be regarded as a fossil fuel, there’s a sort of unspoken limit on how long you can cook and press the algae before it loses the “renewable” badge. Second, the timeline is, ahem, awkward for capitalism.

So, what we need is a time compressor, more or less. You’d be surprised how far the science has come along, less than an order of magnitude left in that Grand Challenge. The costs are too high for fuels, and algae-based polymers are still early, so right now it’s super-high price ingredients that have been the commercial platform.

That’s not going to cut it. Why could an Algae Prize change the paradigm.

A few years ago I met a young fellow, Scott Fulbright, when he popped up as a volunteer at ABLC. A highlight for me during ABLC Week is to spend some time, pre-event, with the volunteers, and hear their stories. Scott went on to found LivingInk, which is bringing biopigments to the market — including one of the best ways I’ve ever seen to make a bio-based black ink. When I think back to that ABLC week, and LivingInk’s progress, I see a great purpose for The Algae Prize. Something I wished back then for Scott and his great team, they’d have gone faster on their journey.

Someone is going to crack the challenge, one of these days. It will probably be someone completely off radar. Who pointed to Steve Jobs & Woz in 1973, Jeff Bezos in 1992, Mark Zuckerberg in 1999, Bill Gates & Paul Allen in 1974, and Elon Musk in 1998, and saw what was coming. I sure didn’t.

The way to solve a puzzle is to get as many people as possible working on it, and let the cream rise to the top, so to speak. The proven road is to avoid the proven road, the proven people were the unproven, the winners were the losers, the somebodies were the nobodies, the Big Obvious Idea starts as the Tiny Obscure Notion Almost No-One Believes In.

Want to change the world? Change algae. That’s a conclusion drawn from years of observation, the Summer of Algae, the Fall of Algae, and everything in between. 

Will $130,000 change the world? Well, Mike Markkula funded Apple with $250,000. Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin started Facebook with $2,000. So, yeah. Doesn’t mean that the Prize will bring forth the Big Idea. Maybe it will. But even more important to the world than the light bulb was the catalyst that turned Tom Edison from whatever he might have become, and made him an inventor. That’s what Prizes can do, shine a light bright enough to attract the right minds, and enough of them.

The Algae Prize is here

So, algae fame awaits a student team, and 15 finalists will be downselected this April and will undertake a year-long project for the judges to consider. 500-word summaries and applications are due on March 2nd. It’s open to grad students, undergrads, and high schools — and the year calumniates in a weekend-long April 14-16 event at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory where the winners will be announced. Microalgae and macroalgae projects are in the mix – both cyanobacteria and eukaryotic algae are part of it. All details are here: https://www.energy.gov/eere/bioenergy/algaeprize-competition


The 2022–2023 AlgaePrize competition is open to teams of two or more students currently enrolled in a U.S.-based high school, community or technical college, college, university, or graduate program. To participate, teams must register by March 2, 2022, by 12 p.m. ET.

Areas of focus

Student teams should focus their project on one of the following areas of interest:

1. Production

Cultivar enhancement

Aquaculture engineering

Husbandry and productivity

2. Downstream Processing

Harvesting, dewatering, and processing

Development of biorefinery applications

3. Identification of Novel Products or Tools

New product development

Remote sensing and modeling

Ecological/environmental services

During the year-and-a-half-long challenge, student teams will work on creative solutions for real-world issues in the algae value chain. The competition culminates in an event where teams present their research to a panel of expert judges. Winning teams from the AlgaePrize competition’s areas of interest receive a trophy, prize money, and national recognition.

The criteria

Same as for other DOE competitions: High Potential, Novelty, Value, Transformative vs incrementa. Also a diversity component will be in the mix


Below is a high-level overview of the AlgaePrize competition timeline. 

March 2, 2022 – Teams must register and submit 500-word research abstract.

April 6, 2022 – Deadline for 10-page research synopsis.

April 13, 2022 – AlgaePrize finalists announced.

April 18, 2022 – Finalists present research synopsis.

August 3, 2022 – Deadline for Research Update #1.

November 2, 2022 – Deadline for Research Update #2.

February 1, 2023 – Deadline for Research Update #3.

March 22, 2023 – Deadline for 25-page Research Project Final Report.

April 12, 2023 – Deadline for team presentation files.

April 14–16, 2023 – AlgaePrize Competition Weekend Event at National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO. AlgaePrize winners announced.

The Bottom Line

Kudos to U of Southern Maine’s Ike Levine (also founder and chief of The Algae Foundation), and DOE’s Christy Sterner, Valerie Reed, Cindy Gerk and Sheila Dillard for driving this idea through to completion. Now, young scientists, change algae!

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