Two geoscience faculty members at The University of Montana have started a partnership with a private company to sustainably produce commercial products from algal biomass.
Potential products include organic fertilizers, natural pigments, food flavorings, fatty acids for biofuels, cholesterol-reducing compounds for food additives, and natural anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer drugs. Natural inputs and nontoxic production methods will give potential products a competitive advantage over similar products produced from petroleum and other nonrenewable sources.
Carrine Blank, a research assistant professor in UM’s geosciences department, and Nancy Hinman, a geosciences professor, are working on the project with Blue Marble Biomaterials, a company specializing in fully sustainable, zero-carbon, specialty chemicals.
The company was founded by Kelly Ogilvie and James Stephens, a UM alum. Stephens, also the company’s chief science officer, leads Blue Marble’s role in the collaborative effort, which largely takes place in the company’s biorefinery near the Missoula airport.
“Our goal will be to tap into Blue Marble’s carbon dioxide waste stream and then turn that CO2 into algal biomass,” Blank said. “We will then work together to harvest commercial products from that biomass.”
She said the diverse collection of patent-pending cyanobacterial and microalgal strains they work with derive from a number of regional waters, including Puget Sound, Washington’s Soap Lake, and local rivers and lakes in Montana. Additional strains come from soil.
Blank said she and Hinman are working to publish a paper about the research being used with the UM/Blue Marble partnership.
Stephens says UM’s favorable attitude toward industry partnerships was one factor in the decision to move the company from Seattle to Missoula in 2010.
“Partnering with UM is key to our research and development program,” Stephens said. “Innovation happens at the nexus of science and market opporunity. This partnership combines Blue Marble’s expertise in chemistry, microbiology and industrial manufacturing with the University’s excellence in research methodology, geoscience and biology. By combining these strengths, we are able to take advantage of an existing market opportunity.”
Joe Fanguy, UM director of technology transfer, said the research partnership with Blue Marble offers an excellent example of how university research can aid private industry and help the Montana economy.
“Successful research collaborations with innovative companies like Blue Marble are a priority for the University’s research enterprise,” Fanguy said. “These partnerships stimulate new research, new inventions, new educational opportunities and, ultimately, new, high-wage jobs in our community, which is a big win for Missoula and Montana.”
Blank says such industry partnerships also offer educational opportunities for UM students. Since 2010 Blue Marble has hired six UM graduates, including four students from the College of Technology. Currently, Blue Marble hosts five interns from UM who gain broad experience in biology, chemistry, engineering and business operations.