Why algae is important to me: An interview with AzCATI’s Dave Cardello

AlgaeDave1As media outlets increasingly tout the possibilities of algae as a resource for the future, more and more people are beginning to ask the question- “why algae?” With recognition of being one of nature′s most prolific and efficient photosynthetic plants, algae is speculated to serve as the foundation for a new generation of renewable and low-carbon transportation fuels, as well as serving as a major component for numerous bioproducts. It is no wonder why a group of multidisciplinary researchers have come together to explore this fascinating organism further in a resource hub named the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI). AzCATI has served as Arizona's platform to spur a new industry cluster in research, development and commercialization of products along the algal value chain. For more than four years, David Cardello has been working at AzCATI to carry out activities such as growing algae, processing it to make products or prepare it for research and basic day-to-day routines of lab work and upkeep. In this time, Cardello has also participated in working with U.S. Department of Energy-funded projects including the Sustainable Algae Biofuels Consortium (SABC) and the Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3). He has also worked on projects with AzCATI collaborators including Morgan Hill Bioenergy, Inc., Algenol and Heliae Development. I interviewed Cardello to reflect on his experience working with these projects as well as discussing why working with algae is important to him.
  1. What have you learned from working on these AzCATI projects? Were there any surprises? The first project I did was I was working in a support role in the SABC project. I “got my feet wet” with larger scale algae culture by growing algae strain weekly which built the foundation to contribute more to future projects. By going through that process, I gained a lot of experience in culture harvesting techniques which are being explored as potential methods of growing algae at larger scale. After working with the SABC project, I then gained experience operating innovative photobioreactor technology (PBR) with our collaborative partners Algenol and Morgan Hill which led to giving me the skills to fulfill my current work with the ATP3 projects.At AzCATI, we try to avoid surprises because the ATP3 testbeds provide us the opportunities to see what surprises can come up in our algae cultures. We intend to come up with innovative ways to deal with any challenges that come our way. A pleasant surprise has been collaborating with people from different backgrounds and disciplines and seeing how we can come together and work toward a shared goal and vision.
  2. Do you view your contributions as successful?  In what ways?  Yeah, I definitely do. All of our performance metrics are very well defined. Our project managers delegate what needs to be achieved and at what time. My hat goes off to AzCATI Lab Manager Tom Dempster, Director of Operations John McGowen and Project Manager Jessica Cheng to make sure all of that happens. They understand what my capabilities are, as well as the rest of the team and they know what we need to do and how to pull it all together. Just knowing what everyone’s skill sets are and knocking out one challenge at a time is all you need to piece together progress.
  3. What would you say most motivates you to do what you do?  What are you most excited or passionate about in your work? What brought me into the algae industry in the first place was recognizing energy as being the source of a lot of conflict in the world. I wanted to do something that would offer an alternative to petroleum and fossil fuels.I was talking to my uncle, whom I really respect, about energy problems and he asked if I had heard about the potential of algae. After that, just out of the blue, a friend of mine told me that the University of Georgia’s Biorefining and Carbon Cycling Program was looking for a technician in their algae lab. I spent a year working there and the more I learned about algae the more I got excited about what it has to offer. This excitement is still building today as I am continuously realizing just how many different avenues there are for using algae not just as an alternative fuel, but for plastics, pharmaceuticals and much more.The best thing is that they are sustainable products, which makes me feel like I’m doing something good.
  4. When you think of the future of the kind of work you’ve talked about here, what gives you a sense of hope?  What makes you concerned or worried? It gives me hope when we keep seeing opportunities to do research handed down from the government. It is understood that this is a necessary pursuit especially as things become more uncertain regarding our fuel supply. I don’t think that algae is going away anytime soon. All the baby steps we make in the right direction cumulatively come together for significant progress. Like I said before, the scope of algae technology is going beyond fuels and I’m excited and hopeful for future opportunities that support AzCATI’s efforts because I believe they will continue to be necessary and important.I am concerned that some of the stakeholders behind pursuing these types of alternative technologies might not remain as excited about progress as we are. One of the things I’ve learned about working in this field is that we are pursuing a long-term goal and vision, so persistence and resilience are necessary characteristics to have to do what we do.
  5. What’s next for you in your work? What are you looking forward to? AzCATI is supporting me in my efforts in pursuing a master’s in sustainability. That being said, I’m looking forward to leveraging my skills with algae to perhaps get in policy development or management with algae. AzCATI would be a good place to accomplish that role in the future. As for right now, I am just focusing on fulfilling AzCATI’s goals and obligations to Department of Energy as best as I can.
Conclusion of Interview Keeping in line with our commitment to support new discoveries and technological advances in our ability to harness sunlight, LightWorks works to actively support AzCATI as they continue to serve as a statewide international and intellectual resource hub for algae-based goods. Our goal is to work together to spur innovative commercial uses for algae and encourage a hands-on learning environment for next generation scientists like Dave Cardello. For more information about the services and solutions AzCATI is working on please visit their website here. Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks. Additional Information: http://atp3.org/ http://asulightworks.com/resources/videos/sustainable-algal-biofuels-consortium.html http://asulightworks.com/resources/videos/arizona-center-algae-technology-and-innovation.html https://asunews.asu.edu/20140421-student-algae-demonstrations https://www.flickr.com/photos/asulightworks/sets/72157629526503549/