Who are you?
I am Gregory O’Neil, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Western Washington University (WWU). I have a background in organic chemistry and completed my postdoctoral research in Germany at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung and started my career at WWU in 2008. My education was working on synthesizing complex natural products, taking simple building block chemicals and assembling more complex structures.
What are you working on?
My current research is a collaborative project with a scientist and friend of mine at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to generate valuable products like biofuels or waxes from algae. This is done by isolating the wax from the fatty acids in the algae.
WRF funded the portion of the work that was conducted at my lab at WWU, which began shortly after I arrived.
Our original line of research was focused on converting the waxes from a common species of marine algae to certain kinds of biofuels and alternative fuels, even jet fuels. We wrote several papers that were focused on biodiesel. At one point in this research, we realized that to be cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels is a challenge and you need to be able to make a gallon of the product for a couple of dollars.
One strategy to improve cost-effectiveness of biofuels from algae was to isolate valuable co-products that you could then sell on the side to offset the cost of the fuel. We pivoted and began focusing on how the waxes could be used in high value, lower volume applications. Cosmetics and personal care products came to mind almost immediately. Our research has shifted to replacing petroleum-based products in lipsticks, lip balms and sunscreen with algae derived waxes to maintain or even improve product performance.
With support from WRF, we have been able to scale this process and work with partners at the University of Minnesota Duluth and University of Toledo to process larger quantities of algae and expand to consumer studies and exploring new product applications.
Why is this research important?
This all comes back to sustainability. This spans many industries, whether we are discussing transitioning away from petroleum-based fuels, plastic materials or replacing petroleum ingredients with alternative products. The importance of this work goes far beyond cosmetics and its impact could be far-reaching. Wax is just one component of the algae we have been focusing on, but moving forward there is no telling how much it could be used for. I foresee the algae industry continuing to advance rapidly in the next couple of decades and this is just the beginning.
WRF supported Dr. O’Neil’s research with technology commercialization grants totaling $130,000 between 2017-2020.