Here I Am to Save the Day: Microalgae gains momentum with a mighty March

April 6, 2010 |
Like microalgae for biofuels, Mighty Mouse is always here "to save the day".

Like microalgae for biofuels, Mighty Mouse is always here "to save the day" with skills that belie his diminutive stature

It has been nearly a year now since a $600 million investment by ExxonMobil in a project with Synthetic Genomics jolted the biofuels community and sparked what became known as the “summer of algae”.

Though summer has long faded, the astonishing pace of algal fuel development has not lost pace, and in fact March was a mighty month for microcrops. Of the 100 or so announcements that poured into the marketplace, here are the Mighty Dozen that defined a mighty memorable 30 days.

1. In Illinois, Honeywell’s UOP announced that it has received $1.5 million in a cooperative agreement with the DOE for a project to demonstrate technology to capture carbon dioxide and produce algae for use in biofuel and energy production. The funding will be used for the design of a demonstration system that will capture carbon dioxide from exhaust stacks at Honeywell’s manufacturing facility in Hopewell, Va., and deliver the captured CO2 to a cultivation system for algae.

Why it’s mighty: In a word, integration. This is a highly integrated scheme that will test schemes for CO2 capture, algal biomass production, as well RTP rapid thermal processing technology to convert waste biomass from the algae production into pyrolysis oil.

2. In California,
Solazyme, the ranked #1 globally in the “50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy” rankings by a panel of international selectors and the readers of Biofuels Digest, announced that it has signed an R&D agreement with Unilever to develop oil derived from algae for use in soaps and other personal care products. The agreement follows the culmination of a yearlong collaboration between Solazyme and Unilever, in which Solazyme’s renewable algal oils were tested successfully in Unilever product formulations.

Why it’s mighty: Unilever joins the algae race. Solazyme’s project not only adds a dimension – in this case soaps – to the co-product universe, it brings in an established global marketing player to an emerging field. It also might well confirm why Solazyme is felt by most to be gaining traction as fast as any company in the field.

3. In Canada,
the St. Marys Cement plant has introduced a CO2 pipeline from its main facility to a $4 million algae-growing demonstration facility operated by Pond Biofuels, which absorbs the CO2 using a strain of algae from the nearby Thames River and produces algae which is burned for electricity used by the plant, or can alternatively provide liquid biofuels for the plant’s truck fleet. The plant, a subsidiary of Brazil’s Grupo Votorantim, is seeking alternatives to potential payments of up to $30 per tone of CO2, which is estimated to add 15 percent to the overall cost of cement. The two project partners received funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence towards development of the project. Pond Biofuels is utilizing a closed photobioreactor system at a 1500 square foot facility.

Why it’s
mighty: CO2. This Canadian project is one of the first to establish a pipeline approach to obtaining CO2 from a cement kiln – which produces much cleaner CO2 than coal-fired power plants.

4. In California, Aurora Biofuels said it has raised an additional $15 million in a recent funding round led by Oak Investment Partners, with the continued support of Gabriel Venture Partners and Noventi Ventures.  This third round of financing brings the total amount of money raised by the company to more than $40 million.  The new funding will be used to support the continued path to commercialization for its advanced algae biofuel technology.

Why it’s mighty: Renewal. Aurora has several pilots running – this is a major sign that they have assembled enough data to move forward on a design to take them down the path towards commercialization.

5. In the UK, the Carbon Trust awarded $12.19 million to a consortium of 11 universities for a three-year project to establish the UK as a center for algal biofuels research and development. The goal of the group is to develop a process for manufacturing up to 18 billion gallons of algal fuel by 2030.

Why it’s mighty: Europe forms a consortium. The UK Carbon Trust has been known more in biofuels for its pyrolysis work. Here, they bet big on age and have brought together a mammoth number of institutions and companies for the biggest project yet launched on the east side of the Atlantic.

6. In Argentina, algae research is expanding in South America with an announcement of a project at the National Technological University of Mar del Plata to develop an algal fuel solution that offers a 5:1 net energy return on energy invested. The project is utilizing seawater from a Mar de Plata industrial cooling process and is projected to yield 856 gallons of algal oil per acre (8000 liters per hectare). The project, which commenced in 2008, is using flocculation and centrifuges for algae extraction and said it was using an undisclosed algal strain adapted for local conditions.

Why it’s mighty: Seawater. Big energy returns and the progress in Latin America are two more reasons that this early-stage result is worth noting for now, and keeping  a sharp eye on for the future.

7. In Utah, Green Star Products and its consortium of algae developers, who previously announced a September 10 auction for what it termed a “game-changing” proprietary algae growth biotechnology, said that that additional licenses have been granted for Utah and Alabama, and that the September 10 auction will now cover rights in 46 US states.

Why it’s mighty: Intrigue. Green Star is no greenhorn in algae – the company has been developing technology for several years. Now, it has adopted a highly unusual auction process for what it says is a major breakthrough, and a number of interested parties, having seen the initial documentation, are reported to be proceeding in their deliberations towards making bids.

8. In the Netherlands, Evodos said that it has reduced its rate of energy consumption for algae harvesting by a factor of three to 0.7 KWh per kilogram (dry weight) of algae. The company’s tests were conducted on Nannochloropsis with an initial concentration of 3 Kg per cubic meter (3 grams per liter), and utilized the next-generation Evodos machines, which the company said are now in production and available for market delivery.

Why it’s mighty: The Evodos announcement now only shows the dramatic advancements still possible in this stage of development – but 0.7 KWh (about 7 cents worth of power) is not bad for a dry kilo of algae, which itself will contain about 2 Kwh, if converted to power.

9. In Delaware, the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has awarded a Technology Investment Agreement to DuPont for the development of a process to convert sugars produced by macroalgae into next-generation biofuels called isobutanol. Bio Architecture Lab will be a subrecipient on the program. Under this award, the DOE will fund $8.8 million and DuPont and BAL will cost share the balance of the total award, forming a joint cost share program between DOE and DuPont.

Why it’s
mighty: Macroalgae is, by definition, much bigger than microoalgae – but all kidding aside, this is one of the first projects to explore the production of butanol as a drop-in fuel from algae.

10. In Arizona, Roy Curtiss, director of the ASU Biodesign Institute’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology and professor in the School of Life Sciences, told PhysOrg, “By releasing (cyanobacteria’s) precious cargo outside the cell, we have optimized bacterial metabolic engineering to develop a truly green route to biofuel production.” Curtiss and Xinyao Liu had previously programmed cyanobacteria to self-destruct after producing oils, but have now pioneered a method to use the thioesterase enzyme to separate lipids from their complex protein carriers, and allow fatty acids to pass through the cell walls through diffusion. Voila, continuous production of oils and a three-fold increase in lipid production rates.

Why it’s mighty: Continuous production. Extracting oil without killing cells is the most efficient means of producing algae oil – here, a process to accomplish it.

11. In California, researchers applied an overvoltage to Chlamydomonas reinhardtii as it was exposed to a photon supply from sunlight, and demonstrated that the microalgae strain does, under these conditions, produce a tiny electric current which can be captured from the microalgae colony. At the present time, current yield is extremely low, and not feasible for electricity production — but it opens up the possibility that the biological processes of algae could provide a renewable source of direct electric production in addition to the conversion of fats, carbohydrates and proteins to energy.

Why it’s mighty: Direct production of energy.  In other schemes, algae is converted to energy by burning oil or biomass. Here, the process directly captures power without the combustion step. Early days, but intriguing.

12. In California, OriginOil announced the formation of an industry working group to develop jet fuel from algae using waste streams. The group will start by developing integrated process models to identify the critical technologies needed. The working group is co-sponsored by OriginOil and the non-profit consortium Electricore. The first industry partners are biodigester builder Biogas Energy and ionic technology developer Ceramatec. More partner announcements are expected in the weeks to come. The first partners will provide some of the key technologies needed, such as anaerobic digestion and fuel cells. OriginOil’s own Helix Bioreactor and Single Step Extraction systems provide a daily harvest of algae oil and biomass, which can be tailored to meet the ASTM standards for jet fuel.

Why it’s mighty: Jet fuel. Aviation jet fuel from algae is widely regarded as the best hope for renewable jet fuel at massive scale. Here, OriginOil has formed a consortium to advance the science.

And…to add a bonus story to this baker’s dozen, here’s a profile of the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts, which received a $44 million grant from the Department of Energy to develop a systems approach for sustainable commercialization of algal biofuel (such as renewable gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel) and bioproducts.

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