From the low points like the closure of the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Aquatic Species Program to highs like 2009′s “Summer of Algae”, aquatic organisms from cyanobacteria to macroalgae have maintained a hold over the imagination of a large cheering section of the biofuels industry, and indeed, the world.
Lately, relentless television advertising from ExxonMobil, touting its cyanobacteria-based R&D partnership with Synthetic Genomics, has continued to drive home the message of the promise of algae.
The promise can be summed up in one word: yield. While terrestrial biofuels ventures have no more than 2,000 per acre yields – and most sugarcane ethanol venture gallonage per acre measures in the mid 600s, corn in the 400s. and soybeans in the 60s – algae has the promise of taking yields up to 5,000 gallons per acre – even 10,000 gallons per acre. It’s Moore’s Law wrapped up in a one-celled organism.
The yield case has been stated in a wide variety of ways by a wide number of algal biofuels boosters and friends. Critics have pointed to challenges – growing stable algal cultures, finding strains that have the most optimal combinations of lipids, carbs and proteins, an economically viable system of harvesting, getting the algae out of the water or the water out of the algae, and finding sustainable and affordable sources of nutrients and CO2. Not to mention the challenges of finding the right water source, and the omnipresent difficulties in raising sufficient cash to develop, prove and scale first-of-kind, capital intensive ventures in algal blooming.
If 2009 was the high watermark of that first rush of newfound enthusiasm for algae, 2010 was a year of tempered expectations, and a strong commitment by a wide assortment of research entities, governments and private ventures towards the identification and systematic solving of the challenges, in order to unlock the value of algal fuel, feed, and bio-based materials and chemicals.
Here are 10 ventures of note – or rather 10 strategies being tackled by a notable collection of organizations. By no means do they represent all the great algal ventures, but they definitely represent the scope of the solutions in development.
Scale: Sapphire Energy
Sapphire Energy is focused on the entire “pond to pump” value chain with over 230 patents or applications spanning the entire algae-to-fuel process. They are developing industrial algae strains through synthetic biology and breeding techniques and are building the technologies and systems for CO2 utilization, cultivation, harvesting and refining. The algae and processes developed are field tested at a New Mexico research and development center where all the processes — from biology to cultivation to harvest and extraction — can be performed at a pilot scale.
These processes result in a product called Green Crude which can be refined into the fuels we use every day – gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
Won the “Plan for Scale” award in the 2010 Biofuels Digest Awards for its design of its algal biofuels system with planned demonstration scale facility in 2014 and first commercial facility in 2018.
Sapphire’s commercialization path aims for 1 billion gallons in the 2020s, while ExxonMobil’s biofuels chief Emil Jacobs has candidly discussed algae in 10-year timelines. Although the National Labs have occasionally been chided for thinking in “elongated timelines,” there are major commercial players thinking in the same time frames.
With the exception of Sapphire, which has laid out a commercialization path leading to a first 100 million gallon facility in 2018, we haven’t seen a published timetable that explains the ten-year horizon; something we might well see from the Algal Biomass Roadmap project in the future.
The company generally shies away from promoting itself as an algal biofuels company, because it focuses its messaging around its products rather than its process – same, by the way, as Budweiser.
Solazyme made the decision several years ago to grow heterotrophic algae in the dark and harvest renewable oils – and have become the unquestioned leader in the quest to make an integrated biorefinery commercially successful in the production of renewable oils for fuels, foods and other bio-based products. Along the ways they’ve racked up an impressive array of partners, and won contracts to supply biofuels to the US Department of Defense. More importantly, in every way, they have personified throughout their organization what it means to be an advanced bio-based company – in the ways that they have triumphed, and in the ways they have faced adversity.”
Stealthy Solar Fuels: Joule
The secretive Joule Unlimited (then known as Joule Biotechnologies) emerged late last year from “stealth mode” with the startling announcement that their technology could produce up to 15,000 gallons per acre (per year) of drop-in hydrocarbon fuels, using only sunlight, CO2 and (fresh, brackish or saline) water as inputs. The Solar Converter – including radical new micro-organism and a technology known as helioculture – is the heart of Joule’s IP.
Did it the announcement change everything? No. Will it change the biofuels competitive landscape? It already has, and conceptually contains those Four Horsemen of a Market Apocalyse that VC so dearly love: disruptive, scalable, competitive, protected technology.
As outlined, the related technologies simultaneously solved the resource challenge known to some as “food vs fuel” (and to others as “soaring feedstock prices”), the infrastructure and product adoption challenges of ethanol and biodiesel, and had the kind of productivity that marked it for early commercialization. Joule fuel was reputed by its backers to be competitive with $30 oil.
Joule has constructed and is now operating a pilot plant in Leander, Texas; they say they have demonstrated proof of concept on 10 renewable chemicals back in the lab they describe as “blendstock for end products”. The company changed its name to Joule Unlimited, and has placed itself on a path towards what it terms initial phase 1 commercialization in late 2011, which will start with a demonstration and then add, utilizing the solar-like modularity of the company’s technology to rapidly scale.
Aurora’s key technology? An optimized strain of pale green, salt-water algae, lighter in color than wild-type algae, allowing deeper penetration of sunlight, thereby extending the zone for algae reproduction and increasing yield. The company has also adapted a technique used in the waste-water industry for low-cost algal harvesting.
Recently, the company said it would transition from a pilot technology development to full-scale commercialization of the Company’s proprietary algae products, including high concentration eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA Omega-3 fatty acids), high-density proteins, fish meal and biodiesel.
CEO Greg Bafalis said recently, “We were focused on location, and saltwater algae that would get out of all those questions about water consumption. Also, we had a pilot that has been running successfully for three years. We did a very through research, and we focused in on Australia because it had the right characteristics. Along the Northwest shelf we found an old algae farm, and there’s plenty of co2 from local natural gas production. Western Australia has just the right combination of light, heat, and dry weather. We are constructing now and expect to be finished in January 2011.
Speed-to-market: PetroAlgae, Algenol
Algenol Biofuels and Dow Chemical are in the process of constructing a $50 million pilot algae biofuels plant in Freeport, Texas. The plant will be located with Dow’s existing chemicals complex, and will supply CO2 as well as land for the pilot algae facility. Dow said that it was interested in Algenol’s ability to use algae to produce ethanol, which could be used as a base for making ethylene, which is in turn a feedstock for many types of chemicals. The plant is designed to produce 100,000 gallons of ethanol per year at a target price of between $1.00 and $1.25 per gallon, according to CEO Paul Woods, who added that groundbreaking is expected to commence this year. Traditionally, chemical companies have been using natural gas as an ethylene feedstock.
PetroAlgae applies leading-practice biochemistry when growing micro-organisms into micro-crops, and focuses on precisely managing exposure to light, greatly enhancing yield. Growth is in one-hectare open pond bioreactors and harvested daily producing two products—high value protein and biocrude. The biocrude is sent to existing refineries for conversion into renewable, drop-in fuels. In addition to its fuel business, PetroAlgae has developed a nutritional product for animal feed and human food markets. This plant-based protein will provide an alternative for fishmeal, protein concentrates and isolates in current market segments.
PetroAlgae was most recently in the news with MOU with Indian Oil, a partnership with Foster Wheeler, and licensing in China and North Africa. The company’s model farm is 12,500 acres and produces 60 Mgy of fuel and as much or more value in proteins, according to company execs.
System Integration: OriginOil
Algal fuel industry systems developer OriginOil made the Hot 50 for a second year in a row, climbing to #42. In May, Australia’s MBD Energy became the company’s first algae-producing customer. Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies, is a cornerstone investor in MBD Energy. The parties recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding on a multi-phase commercialization program under which OriginOil will its Quantum Fracturing and Single-Step Extraction systems. In the initial phase, OriginOil will equip MBD Energy’s research and development facility at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, where testing will take place. The two companies agreed that, subject to the success of the initial test phase, MBD will purchase significantly larger feeding and OriginOil extraction units to serve facilities planned for its three Algal Synthesiser power station projects.
As a result, OriginOi announced in early January 2011 that that it has adopted an operating plan that focuses on commercializing its industry leading algae extraction technology platform. This new single focus on extracting oil from algae strategically positions the company to provide the critical connection between algae growers and refiners.
“Extraction is a critical bottleneck in commercial algae production,” the company said. “At time of harvest, algae live in a great volume of water. Conventional extraction, adequate for specialty products, such as pharmaceuticals, is far too energy-intensive for large-scale uses such as fuel and chemicals. A scalable and proven solution to the extraction challenge is vital to the future of the fast-growing algae industry.”
Strategic location: Phycal
Phycal was co-founded by Dr. Richard Sayre, Director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Danforth Plant Science Center; Chief Scientist of the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts (NAABB); and Director of the Center for Advanced Biofuels Systems (CABS). The company is based in Ohio, where it is part of the Logos Energy Group, and is building a pilot project in Hawaii that will open this year.
Why Hawaii? According to Phycal, “energy costs in Hawai’i are the highest in the United States, and its principal source of electricity is oil-fired plants that consume more than 400 million gallons of petroleum-based fuels annually. Phycal’s system can deliver algal oil at a competitive price for the Hawai’i market.” The company also points to the Hawai’i Clean Energy Initiative, which sets stringent clean energy targets. Successful demonstration and testing of components, system performance, and products will support deployment of a commercial scale farm as soon as 2015.
Strategic partnership: NAABB
Last January, the news came through that a consortium called the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts had received a $44 million grant from the Department of Energy. Principal ionvstigator and organizr Jose Olivares later noted: “JO: “It’s the first time I’ve put a consortium of this size together. You learn as you go. We had several principles. One, inclusiveness, to make sure you had a broad perspective, from the national labs, academia and industry. Two, understanding the algae value chain as best as we could, and making sure we had good organizations in each area. The third, I think may be the one that made us click, was being transparent and being supportive. Not coming in with “mine is better than yours” but how could we build this together. When it came to the hard decisions, it made it possible to have an attitude that the “best outcome” was important. That helped.”
Led by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (St. Louis, MO), NAABB will develop a systems approach for sustainable commercialization of algal biofuel (such as renewable gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel) and bioproducts. NAABB will integrate resources from companies, universities, and national laboratories to overcome the critical barriers of cost, resource use and efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, and commercial viability. It will develop and demonstrate the science and technology necessary to significantly increase production of algal biomass and lipids, efficiently harvest and extract algae and algal products, and establish valuable certified co-products that scale with renewable fuel production. Co-products include animal feed, industrial feedstocks, and additional energy generation. Multiple test sites will cover diverse environmental regions to facilitate broad deployment.
Partners are: Los Alamos National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, University of Arizona, Brooklyn College, Colorado State University, New Mexico State University, Texas AgriLife Research, Texas A&M University System, University of California Los Angeles, University of California San Diego, University of Washington, Washington University in St. Louis, Washington State University, AXI, Catilin, Diversified Energy, Eldorado Biofuels, Genifuel, HR BioPetroleum, Inventure, Kai BioEnergy, Palmer Labs, Solix Biofuels, Targeted Growth, Terrabon, UOP.
Cost, cost, cost – that is, driving the costs down rather than runing them up – that’s been the sole focus at Photon8, which is one of the emerging entities working on closed photobioreactor systems. Despite the reputation of the closed PBR for costing just too much to make algal fuels competitively, or in many ventures so far, even making chemicals or lower-end nutraceuticals uneconomic — Photon8 says it is modeling a diesel fuel cost of $1.25 per US gallon.
Their secret sauce? According to a recent report in AI online, ” Photon8 has demonstrated photobioreactor production rate equal to 1.5 gal/square meter/yr and is on its way to an expected rate of 22,000 gal per 2.5 acre/yr then to best economic units of 5 acres. It believes further development may bring it close to 10,000 gal/acre/yr as a basis for planning large production systems.”
Another secret in its algal sauce: Photon8 says that it has discovered how to produce hydrocarbons straight from algae to be used as drop-in fuels. Company CEO Brad Bartilson said that around the time the company was looking into how to make jet fuel, came the realization that the firm’s algae cell growth rate was high enough that it could use some of the cells to make hydrocarbons once they’d been “milked” of oily lipids, an essential ingredient for algae-based biofuel, rather than using the cells exclusively for lipid production.
According to Bartilson, the company’s results have been analyzed and confirmed by qualified outside laboratories. They are at small-scale now, raising funding for larger scale, but certainly a development to watch. One with a refreshing, singular focus on driving cost out of its systems.