Industry Market Trends

When Will Algae Show Us the Money?

Nov 23, 2011

The amount of "feel good" stories about how bio-fuels, and more specifically algae, have the potential to save the world is simply staggering. Don't get me wrong, there's some great algae ingenuity at play and it is impressive to see venture capitalists, scientists and engineers work in tandem to turn algae into a mainstream bio-fuel... one day. But for algae to grow beyond its never-ending pilot phase and into major production, it's going to need to produce the kind of green that America really loves the most: profit.

Perhaps algae extractor OriginOil has the answer. They just announced the release of a "Algae Appliance", a commercial entry-level algae harvesting system that will help producers process algae at very low cost and without chemicals. Here's more from their recent press release:

Slated for commercial release in the first half of 2012, the Algae Appliance provides a low energy, chemical-free, continuous flow 'wet harvest' system, with the potential to remove up to 90 percent of the initial water volume.  Field testing will begin soon with select partners who have current or near-term large volumes of algae for harvesting.

Seems as though Algae Appliance is versatile, claiming to process as little as two liters per minute, or "up to ten times that rate, serving capacities of 100,000 liters and more," according to Ken Reynolds, OriginOil's vice president of marketing. Ken said he'll "of course make it easy for our customers to upgrade all the way to production scale."

Ken, appreciate your ambition. But if Algae Appliance does everything it says it does, why aren't we hearing more about this? Why hasn't BP bought you by now? Why haven't Matt Lauer and Al Roker of TODAY show fame held a go-kart race powered by OriginOil's ingenuity, right in 30 Rockefeller, for all the world to see? You're in marketing. Make it happen.

OriginOil obviously isn't alone with regards to grand algae ambitions. Are you ready for this? Another venture involves speeding up the genetic manipulation of algae to "make everything humanity needs"' according to a recent article in Live Science.

Everything humanity needs? Really?

The man behind this seemingly unattainable pipe dream is J. Craig Venter, man responsible for one of the original sequences of the human genome as well as the team that brought the first living cell running on human-made DNA. All fine and dandy but how can Mr. Venter show us the (algae) money? Here's more from Scientific American:

"Nothing new has to be invented. We just have to combine [genes] in a way that nature has not done before. We're speeding up evolution by billions of years," Venter told an energy conference on October 18 at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. "It's hard to imagine a part of humanity not substantially impacted."

To be fair, the remainder of the Scientific American article is worth checking out if you want to learn more about the scientific complexities that go into something like this. As promising as the genetic manipulation of algae sounds, it seems pretty far off in terms of real execution and production.

To my original point, algae as a viable bio-fuel, seems to be suspended in a perpetual state of piloting. It's been proven time and time again from many different industries, including the U.S. Department of Defense, that algae-based bio-fuels work. So what's the hold up?

For one, when you have well-funded companies like the MIT- founded GreenFuel Technologies going belly up after building a mini algae production infrastructure, something is still amiss. That difficult to define "something" is actually quite simple. It's called cost.

GreenFuel said it was far more expensive to produce algae than it had anticipated, according to recent article in Nature.com.  And according to Nigel Quinn, an agricultural engineer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who led a BP study on the topic, making fuel from algae using today's technology is a money-losing proposition, unless it's done in conjunction with another process, such as treating wastewater or producing valuable by-products.

Again, there's a staggering amount of feel good algae stories out there. But enough is enough. When will algae show us the money?