Lab-grown Green Slice Seems Poised for Prime Time

Once confined to laboratories and tiny test sites, the algal industry has begun to move aggressively into creating larger farms and sophisticated production facilities capable of manufacturing thousands of gallons of biofuels and oils for a wide range of products.

The Algae Biomass Summit, held in Minneapolis last week, showcased a number of breakout companies that spoke of expanding facilities paid for by federal government grants and private investors.

Sponsored by the Algal Biomass Organization (ABO), the summit drew nearly 800 people.  The ABO’s executive director, Mary Rosenthal, said attendance rose 25 percent over last year and trade show exhibitors skyrocketed by 100 percent.

“The key difference this year, over past years, is that we’re out of the lab now and we’re into production,” she said. “We’re also seeing people here who want to hire, they have job opportunities available.”

The conference highlighted the different approaches industry leaders take to growing algae, from open ponds to stainless vats to enclosed bioreactors. The algae they grow aren’t the kind found in lakes or oceans but rather proprietary strains designed in laboratories.

The industry, in fact, is beginning to look a lot like agriculture but a lot more technologically controlled. Rosenthal sees it as akin to the farm-raised fish market. “I think it’s becoming a like the aquaculture industry,” she said.

Another issue highlighted was that algae require carbon dioxide to grow and co-locating near CO2 producers should be a preferred option in the future. There may not be a price now, or ever, on CO2 but the algae industry just might be a starting point for a new CO2 industry.

Perhaps the best known algae company – and one of the few publicly traded ones – is Solazyme. The South San Francisco company has raised more than $200 million and has several plants operating in the Midwest and West.

Although much of the discussion of algae focuses on energy, Solazyme president Harrison Dillon pointed out that his company now provides oil for nutritionals, cosmetics, health sciences – and fuel.

Solayzme has a contract to provide the U.S. Navy with 150,000 gallons in a pilot project that includes diesel fuel for plans. “The test results have been fantastic,” he said. “We’ve found our oil works identical to petroleum-based fuels and we were able put it straight into the Navy’s existing (delivery) platform.”

For the packaged food industry Solayzme tailored oils for products through a relationship with Roquette Freres, a French company. The collaboration has a plant underway in France that will offer ingredients derived from microalgae. Its oils are also part of a Sephora line that is being sold at J.C. Penney’s among other retail outlets.

Solayzme develops its own strains of algae, which grow in stainless steel vats and feed off sugars from feedstock such as corn, switchgrass and sugar cane. Dillon said the oil produced from the algae can be tailored to different product lines by manipulating the carbon chain.

A panel discussion and presentation by a keynote speaker on the conference’s first day showcased the wide variety approaches to harvesting algae and finding markets for it. Cynthia (C.J.) Warner, president of Sapphire Energy, said her company now has 150 employees in San Diego and is building outdoor ponds to grow algae in Las Cruces and Columbus, N.M.

Sapphire raised $200 million from federal government and private sources to produce “green crude” that will function the same as regular crude oil. The advantage, she said, is that the existing supply and delivery chains would remain the same – refineries and vehicles could use it in the same manner they do regular crude.

The company can extract 30 barrels a day off 100 acres of algae, said Warner. By 2018, she believes Sapphire will be producing 18,000 barrels a day. “In the next three years we think the economics will show that green crude will be competitive with oil,” said Warner.

Solazyme and Sapphire have plenty of friendly competition. In Fort Myers, Fla. Paul Woods, co-founder and CEO of Algenol Biofuels, has attracted 10 partners and $200 million for the commercialization of an algae that produces ethanol.  His goal is produce ethanol for less than $1 a gallon and just last week the company announced construction of a 36 acre facility that will house 3,000 photo bioreactors.

The integrated biorefinery, billed as the world’s largest, will be able to manufacture 100,000 gallons of what Algenol calls “Direct To Ethanol” technology. The project “will put us on the path to commercialization,” said Woods. “We’ll be a very interesting story in 2012 and beyond.”

In Shenandoah Iowa, meanwhile, Great Plains Renewable Energy opened an algae plant next to an existing ethanol facility in collaboration with three companies, including BioProcess Algae, Inc. Great Plains takes C02 waste out of the ethanol process and adds into the algae bioreactors on a five acre site that will grow to 400 acres in 2012.

In Hawaii, Phycal, Inc. has developed a 51 acre pilot project with algae growth boosted by cassava sugar in a process it weirdly calls “heteroboost.” The Ohio company’s president and co-founder Kevin Berner, said Hawaiian Electric has agreed to buy 100,000 to 150,000 gallons by 2014. “We think we can scale to near commercial very quickly,” he said. “Hawaii has a perfect climate for growing algae.”

Dan Simon, president of Heliae Development, described his company’s efforts to reduce the cost of algae production through development of an integrated approach. The Arizona company has created its own algae lines, photo-bioreactors and extraction process.

Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat and algae industry supporter, also spoke at the conference. He chided the ABO for using “algal” when “algae” is so much easier to produce and understand.  “Do I have to say algal?” he said. “I don’t want to.”  

Franken may need to learn to say algal, however, since he promised conference attendees he would make renewables one of his top priorities in the Senate. As he noted in his speech, algae will become an important source of renewable energy in the future.

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