While biofuel made from algae shows strong promise over fuel made from food crops – it can be cultivated on wasteland and produce more energy per square foot than any other crop – it has seen a number of roadblocks along the way. For this reason, many of the companies that have pursued it have failed. The players that have continued R&D on algae biofuel have struggled, and some have had to stay financially afloat by producing and selling into smaller, niche algae markets such as skincare products. Experts call this period from early research and development to commercial success “The Valley of Death,” and so it has proved to be for many companies. Algae-based biofuel will need to be produced on a huge scale to lower costs enough to enable it to compete with petroleum.
The two most common targets for advancement of algae biofuel are the growth media (open pond vs. closed bioreactor) and methods to remove the intracellular components of the algae. There are several organizations that have continued to press on.
Open Versus Closed Growing
There are two methods of cultivating algae for biofuel: in open ponds and in closed bioreactors. Both benefits have their pros and cons: the open method is cheaper and less energy intensive. The closed method allows better control of growing conditions and protects against contamination. Algae company Solazyme grows its algae in closed fermentation tanks, while Sapphire Energy is pursuing breakthroughs in the open pond method.
Solazyme, a San Francisco-based company that went public in the spring of 2011, used an algae side business in alternative chemicals and personal care products to fund development of a workable closed-reactor algae biofuel at a cost and scale that will allow it to compete with petroleum (though the company has still reported losses recently.)
Last year, the company entered a partnership with Brazilian food processing giant Bunge, creating Solazyme Bunge Produtos Renováveis. The new venture received a $120 million loan from the Brazilian Development Bank to build its first commercial-scale algae fuel factory in Brazil. The facility, which broke ground last year, is located next to Bunge’s sugarcane mill in São Paulo, which will allow it to use sugar as feedstock. Solazyme, which plans to be ready for large scale algae biofuel distribution by the end of this year, says it will initially produce 100,000 metric tons of fuel per year, scaling up to 300,000 metric tons by 2016.
Solazyme also plans to reach commercial viability in the U.S. soon thanks to its factory Clinton, Iowa, owned by agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. The Iowa facility is expected to make 20,000 metric tons of algae oil per year by early 2014, ultimately scaling up to 100,000 metric tons per year. The company also has a smaller-scale development factory in Peoria, Illinois.
San Diego-based Sapphire Energy is hoping to cross the “Valley of Death” thanks to new innovations in its 2,200-acre open pond algae farm in Columbus, N.M. The site has 70 ponds, each the size of a football field, and an on-site refinery that has already begun to produce low volumes of oil. By 2014, the company says it will be able to make 1.5 million gallons of algae crude per year and scale up to 10,000 barrels a day by 2018. The company has carried on extensive research on preventing and managing the most aggressive microbes that contaminate open algae ponds, which is the method’s biggest challenge.
Sapphire Energy has some prominent friends with deep pockets. The company has raised at least $300 million from venture capitalists and investors such as Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment. The company also received $50 million in stimulus funding and a $54.4 million federal loan guarantee.
Another company, Los Angeles-based OriginOil, says it has found a different solution to the algae biofuel bacteria problem, according to Clean Technica. OriginOil’s Jose Sanchez, General Manager of the company’s Algae Division, notes that freshly harvested algae is stable for only about 10 to 12 hours before it begins to rot due to bacteria. The company’s proprietary Algae Screen process boosts algae growth by inhibiting microbes with an electromagnetic pulse that kills microbes while sparing the algae itself. The end result, the company hopes, is a more efficient process that will enable more algae to be grown in smaller areas. The process, once optimized, would allow small-scale farmers to grow algae for biofuel.
Breakthroughs in the Lab
Many current producers of algae biofuel dry the algae first and then extract the natural oil, which adds time and expense to the process. University of Michigan Engineering researchers have developed a way to “pressure-cook” wet algae for as little as a minute and transform 65 percent of the algae into biocrude. To make their one-minute biocrude, the Michigan scientists fill a steel pipe connector with 1.5 milliliters of wet algae, cap it and drop it into 1,100-degree Fahrenheit sand.
“We’re trying to mimic the process in nature that forms crude oil with marine organisms,” said Phil Savage, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan.
One of the advantages of the wet method is that it doesn’t just extract the existing fat from the algae —it also breaks down proteins and carbohydrates. The Michigan one-minute method accomplishes this so successfully that the resulting oil contains about 90 percent of the energy in the original algae: near the upper boundary of what’s possible with algae, says Savage.
Across the Atlantic, researchers at the University of Sheffield in England have made algae harvesting easier by creating a cheap method of producing microbubbles that allow algae particles to float to the surface of the water, which make harvesting easier and saves both time and money. The process uses 1,000 times less energy to produce the bubbles than previous methods and can be installed at much lower cost, say the researchers.
One clue to the potential for algae-based biofuel is the interest large energy companies such Exxon-Mobile and BP are taking in it, and in some cases, it’s the potential of genetically altered algae that they are focused on.
La Jolla, Calif.-based Synthetic Genomics, a bioengineered alternative fuel company, recently signed a $600 million development deal with ExxonMobil. Last spring, Synthetic Genomics bought an 81-acre site in California’s Imperial Valley, and it plans to scale up and test its algae strains there with 42 open ponds. The company says it turned to bioengineered “synthetic” algae when it failed to find a natural strain of algae that can produce large enough quantities of fuel.
As a result, SGI is currently engineering a synthetic eukaryotic alga that can produce up to 20,000 gallons of fuel per acre, which is five to 10 times greater than natural algae, says the company. SCI head and genomics scientist Craig Venter said that the variables are so numerous, it’s a matter of finding the “secret sauce” algae strain to produce the greatest yield.
Since engineered alga is basically a genetically-modified organism (GMO), however, this means its cultivation may run into regulatory roadblocks.
“There are some serious issues to overcome as the new synthetic algae may be considered a genetically modified organism (GMO) which could require decades of evaluation before it can be deployed into the field. Some countries like Japan and France still will not allow GMO corn or even the products such as oil, starch, corn meal,” biofuel researcher Randy Ryan told the International Journal of BioTechniques.
The U.S. Department of Energy has its sights set on algae biofuel, and the agency recently parted with a $15 million grant to establish an algae biofuel test bed in Arizona. NASA has also launched an algae biofuel initiative with an eye to long-distance space travel: imagine a spacecraft that can actually grow and refine its own fuel during the mission using wastewater. As the space agency sets its sights to an eventual manned mission to Mars, the technology is compelling.
While algae-based biofuel may not yet be out of the “Valley of Death,” the chances that it will reach commercial viability are greater every day. The process, once perfected, could ultimately put most other biofuels out of business.