Efficient Photobioreactor for Algae-Based Fuel

OPEN 2012
New York
Project Term:
02/01/2013 - 05/01/2014

Critical Need:

Widespread use of petroleum-based fuels for the transportation sector is harmful to the environment and makes the U.S. more dependent on foreign oil. Biofuels are a promising alternative to traditional fuels, but they are currently too expensive to produce in large quantities. In order to make biofuels cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels, we need to find new, significantly more efficient ways to produce fuels from sustainable materials, such as algae and plant biomass.

Project Innovation + Advantages:

Cornell University is developing a new photobioreactor that is more efficient than conventional bioreactors at producing algae-based fuels. Traditional photobioreactors suffer from several limitations, particularly poor light distribution, inefficient fuel extraction, and the consumption of large amounts of water and energy. Cornell’s bioreactor is compact, making it more economical to grow engineered algae and collect the fuel the algae produces. Cornell’s bioreactor also delivers sunlight efficiently through low-cost, plastic, light-guiding sheets. By distributing optimal amounts of sunlight, Cornell’s design would increase efficiency and decrease water use compared to conventional algae reactors.

Potential Impact:

If successful, Cornell’s compact photobioreactor would substantially improve the efficiency and reduce the cost of algae-based biofuels.


Providing a cost-effective alternative to petroleum fuels would help the U.S. reduce its dependence on foreign oil imports and improve U.S. energy independence.


Because algae naturally absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, the level of greenhouse gas emissions from algal biofuels produced in bioreactors is a small fraction of that from petroleum fuels.


The U.S. imports nearly $1 billion in petroleum each day. Algal biofuels can be produced domestically, allowing us to keep more dollars at home.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Howard Branz
Project Contact:
Dr. David Erickson
Press and General Inquiries Email:
Project Contact Email:

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