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Alexandra Holland


PhD in Chemical Engineering, University of Washington, 2007
BS Chemical Engineering with Honors, UC Berkeley 2001
French Baccalaureate 1995, Paris, France


International IGERT fellow 2005-2006
NSF fellow 2002-2005
ARCS fellow 2001-2004
American Institute of Chemical Engineers Outstanding Senior Award 2001
Dow Chemical Outstanding Junior Award


Engineering the phosphate metabolism in the radiation-resistant bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans for radioactive waste cleanup

Publications and Conferences

Journal of Plankton Research: Biomass production from algae: A novel culture selection methodology based on batch growth productivity estimates Holland AD, Dragavon JM (UW Chemistry), Sigee DC (University of Manchester Faculty of Life Sciences) (submitted)

Two posters at the Algae Biomass Summit:

    Process Integrated Algae Research Consortium Founder: Alex Holland, PhD and Scientific Advisor: Joe Dragavon, PhD

    The importance of strain selection using batch cultures: development of a robust methodology to estimate large-scale algae biomass and lipid productivities Alex Holland1,3, Joe Dragavon2, David Sigee3 1Chemical Engineering, 2Chemistry, University of Washington, Seattle, USA 3Faculty of Life Sciences, Manchester, UK

Applied and Environmental Microbiology Gordon Research Conference 2005, CT, poster presentation

Metabolic Engineering V 2004, CA, poster presentation

Metabolic Engineering IV 2002, Italy, poster presentation

Current Progress

During this past academic year, the IGERT Multinational Collaborations on Challenges to the Environment fellowship has provided me with the resources to further investigate whether our society has the technological means to achieve sustainable development while reducing environmental stress.  I would like to start by emphasizing the fact that energy efficiency alone will not prevent greenhouse gas accumulation; severance from the use of fossil and nuclear resources as energy sources, for consumer goods and use in infrastructure is essential.  While I would not render justice to the latter, I hope to show that satisfying the first two does not require any major scientific breakthrough.  

I am defining sustainable development as ‘the integration of the human activity into the natural carbon cycle, where all the chemical intermediates and products are bio-available, where no fossil resource is utilized (coal, oil, natural gas), and current forest ecosystems are preserved’.  My presentation: “Global Sustainability:  The Role of Emerging Technologies” points to a variety of sustainable technological alternatives, whose potential and significance should be assessed at three different levels:

  • at a qualitative level, which should be built on public consensus
  • at a quantitative level: land area coverage, obvious manufacturing or resource limitations …
  • at a process level, based on current process engineering assessment

In addition, Life Cycle Analysis is a powerful tool to assess current research potential for significant large-scale environmental impact.  Furthermore, funding agencies could utilize this tool in order to best allocate their funds.

It is a common public perception that technological choices should be left to discussion among ‘experts’, and that funding agencies tend to fund the most promising areas of research across all disciplines.  Yet, the reality is that each ‘expert’ knows best about their own area and will expectedly advocate for it.  Thus, each scientist is, by definition, partial to their own research.  In order to prevent this, the public must be educated about the basic science behind each discipline to formulate an overarching set of criteria, in order to determine the most viable routes toward sustainable development. 

The understanding that carbon neutrality is necessary to achieve sustainable development is increasingly being accepted by the public.  When I joined the Sierra Club Energy Committee five years ago, I had a heated discussion with one of the members who claimed that hydrogen should be preferred as a transportation fuel over methanol as hydrogen does not emit carbon dioxide.  But, the more relevant question to answer was whether the methanol or the hydrogen was produced from a fossil resource, since the use of the fossil resource would undermine carbon neutrality.  In the same manner, fuel cells are a more efficient means to produce power compared to combustion engines.  However, the energy sources for these fuel cells are still typically derived from fossil resources which, again, do not support carbon neutrality.  As our society engages in its sustainable transition, it is crucial for the public to understand the bigger picture and build a consensus about the goals for scientists and engineers to reach.

Rough assessment of various technologies can easily be achieved with back of the envelope calculations which can be discussed across a broad range of disciplines.  In my presentation, I carried out such rough preliminary assessment with algae biofuel production as an example. 

The individual contribution of each technology can be better assessed once integrated, which is crucial to the process’ overall success.  With this in mind, and as a tool for learning, such analysis can be carried out by teams of chemical or mechanical engineering undergraduate students in the scope of an independent senior design project.  An integrated process combining algae lipid synthesis to produce biofuel, anaerobic digestion to produce methane, and methane fuel cells to produce electricity, will be examined during the Chem E 497A course during the 2006-07 academic year.  This will fulfill my IGERT fellowship pedagogical internship.

IGERT project overview

Rhonda Schmidt (Forest Resources), Nam Nguyen (Materials Science Engineering) and I (Chemical Engineering) worked as a team to look at ‘Tri-Glyceride production from algae grown on dairy anaerobic digester effluent’ during the 2005-06 fellowship year.  Anaerobic biodigesters (ADs) are able to process cow manure and stable scrapings to produce methane which can, in turn, power a generator.  The electricity that is generated can be used for the farm or sold back to the local utility.  The byproducts of the process are carbon dioxide, dry fiber and nutrient-rich liquid effluent.  The dry fiber is used as animal bedding or nursery material, but there is currently no practical use for the carbon dioxide and liquid effluent.  The carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere and the wet effluent is normally lagooned and seasonally applied to fields. 

ADs are environmentally-friendly since they produce and concentrate methane for fuel that would normally be released into the atmosphere if the manure was lagooned.  Methane is approximately 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  Dairy farms are a significant source of atmospheric methane.  Unfortunately, anaerobic biodigesters are not very economically viable in the Pacific Northwest since this region has some of the lowest electric rates in the country due to the abundance of hydroelectric power.  Since the cost of electricity is so low, the electricity produced by the burning of methane from the AD process is also of relatively low value and it can take over 10 years to pay back the initial cost of the digester.

As a group, we decided to look at a way to make the AD process more economically viable and to utilize the byproducts of the AD process.  We determined that using coupled AD/algal bioreactor system could possibly meet our objectives.  Algae can produce large amounts of Triacylglycerols (TAGs), on the order of 20-30% of their cell weight.  TAGs constitute the oil-precursor of biodiesel.  Algae produce what is considered high-quality TAGs for biodiesel and they are resistant to gelling and oxidation.  To grow the algae, we are proposing to use AD effluent and carbon dioxide from the AD process as nutrient sources.  TAG from the algae will be extracted enzymatically, and used for biodiesel production on the farm.

 Project timeline and meetings

 August, 2005

I met Paul Davis, a farmer interested in commercializing his small-scale biodiesel production unit, and tried to help him take advantage of University resources to do so.  In the process, I found out about algae production of bio-oil on the University of New-Hampshire website:   http://www.unh.edu/p2/biodiesel/article_alge.html

September, 2005:

  • Nam, Rhonda and I participated in the IGERT transboundary field trip.  On the trip we were able to visit several dairy farms and learn about the impacts of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on surface waters. 
  • We were exposed to the idea of using existing natural gas pipelines in the Sumas area to transport methane from ADs on farms.  We decided to research why more farms were not using ADs to process manure.

October, 2005:

  • We researched why more farms aren’t using AD to process manure.  It quickly became obvious that the cost of the digester was more than could be recouped by electricity sales in a reasonable amount of time.

November and December, 2005:

  • Rhonda and I attended the Tilth Society’s “Alternative Energy on the Farm” conference in Wenatchee, Washington.  After a presentation by Chad Kruger from Washington State University, we realized that we needed to focus on value-added products to make AD technology more economically feasible.
  • Based on prior research, we decided to focus our project on combining algal bioreactors and ADs.

January, 2006

  • We visited Craig McConnell at the Washington State University extension office in Bellingham, Washington to talk about the economic viability of biodigesters, and current research focusing on value-added products from biodigesters.
  • Nam and I visited the Vanderhaak dairy in Lynden, Washington.  They were taken on a tour of the dairy and the farm’s biodigester (the only one on a farm in Western Washington).  They were able to collect a liter of biodigester effluent. 

February, 2006

  • Nam and I met with Prof Michael Brett (Environmental Engineering) to discuss lipid production from algae.

March, 2006

  • Rhonda and I presented our poster “Valorization of manure using combined anaerobic biodigestion and algal TAG production” at the Engineering Conferences International Bioenergy I conference in Tomar, Portugal.  The main themes of the conference were Biodiesel production from vegetable oils, Bio-Ethanol production, and Anaerobic Digestion (dark fermentation and upflow microbial fuel cells).  The linked overviews for these topics are a combination of the presentations content and complementary information found online, and can be a starting point for further research.
  • I attended the Northwest biodiesel network meeting in Seattle.
  • Elizabeth Willmott, from the King County Executive office, and I, facilitated a meeting between office representatives and UW professors to exchange ideas about sustainable development.  Elizabeth met Tom Hinckley as she was debating whether to join the IGERT cohort or work for Ron Sims.

April, 2006

  • I attended the North East Algal Society meeting in Poughkeepsie, NY
  • We start culturing 12 algal strains ordered from the University of Texas, chosen as lipid-rich candidates after reading the 1998 NREL report “A Look Back at the U.S. Department of Energy's Aquatic Species Program: Biodiesel from Algae”, with the advice and guidance of Prof. Rose Ann Cattolico (Biology).  I was still looking for the original SERI culture collection resulting from this study.  The goal was to feed these various eukaryotic algae strains on AD effluent as a nutrient source and assess lipid content.

May, 2006

  • Rhonda and I presented our poster “Valorization of manure using combined anaerobic biodigestion and algal TAG production” at the IGERT national meeting in Washington, DC.
  • Nam presented our poster at the MCCE IGERT end-of-year meeting.
  • Rhonda analyzed the AD effluent for nitrate and phosphate.  Nitrate was 11 mM and phosphate was 1.3 mM.  Copper and iron showed up as “trace” (below the standard curve).
  • I attended a meeting/phone conference with PSE, the Greenfuel Co., John Plaza from Seattle Biodiesel (now Imperium Biofuels), and UW professors to discuss a pilot project (funded by PSE) to realize an algae bioreactors pilot project.
  • I registered to present two sessions on the algae work at the AIChE (American Institute of Chemical Engineers) meeting in November 06 in San Francisco:

http://aiche.confex.com/aiche/2006/preliminaryprogram/session_3459.htm     (research)

http://aiche.confex.com/aiche/2006/preliminaryprogram/session_3354.htm   (education)

June, 2006

  • I went to the Mixed Culture Biotechnology seminar in Delft, Holland, (summary) organized by Robbert Kleerebezem.  I will do my internship abroad in his laboratory to get a better understanding of Anaerobic Digestion.
  • After contacting current researchers at the NREL, I found out that the NREL report algae culture collection was maintained at the University of Hawaii, from which I ordered four strains.  Algae strain list; Algae research preliminary results in progress

November, 2006

  • Summary of AIChE (American Institute of Chemical Engineers) meeting in San Francisco

Outreach Experience

- University of Washington Engineering Open House 2002, 2003, 2004, performed the demo on luminescent bacteria ‘the Glow of Nature’
- University of Washington Earth Day 2003, presented on ‘The Role of Emerging Technologies in Achieving Global Sustainability’
- Sierra Club Energy Committee 2001-2003, promoted awareness about climate change and renewable energy


Look at means to integrate human activity in the global carbon cycle:
- Conversion of biomass to liquid methanol or “bio-methanol”
- Use of methanol to power fuel-cells, with in-situ production of hydrogen from methanol
- Manipulation of microbial metabolism to produce precursors to the chemical industry from renewable feedstock (sugars …)
- Use of microbes to biodegrade and/or bio-sequester toxic waste