Biggie Smalls, part III: Valero invests in Algenol, as major players find big promise wrapped in tiny packages

May 6, 2010 |
Proposed Algenol facility

Proposed Algenol facility

In Texas, Valero announced a joint development deal with Florida-based Algenol Biofuels, describing a “relatively small investment” but not offering details on the deal. Algenol said in media reports that the development deal calls for the two companies to place algae farms next to refineries, and using the carbon dioxide as a feedback for the production of ethanol and renewable chemicals. Linde and Dow Chemical have previously partnered with Algenol, while Valero has previously invested in Solix, as well as the waste-to-ethanol company Terrabon.

If you are visiting a commercial or university energy lab this year, careful with that anti-bacterial soap, my friend. Some of the most interesting developments in energy and synthetic biology are confirming what many have known for years: bacteria may well be the best friend that humanity ever had. New developments in energy development using micro-organisms are making the case that “size doesn’t matter”, even if cost and yield matters more than ever.The announcement headed a big week for fuel makers relying on microorganism-based platforms, including algae, cyanobacteria, yeast and e.coli. Today, the Digest reviews and analyzes some of the latest developments.


Platform: Algae

News: This week, OriginOil announced a direct-solar growth design that uses growth layers to harness the sun’s energy more effectively than existing pond systems, while greatly reducing the real estate required. “Algae ponds and channels are great for tapping the sun’s energy, but they require vast amounts of land,” said Riggs Eckelberry, OriginOil CEO. “We simply stacked the algae layers to multiply the benefits of ‘free’ solar energy. The result is an ideal mix of sustainable growth and industrial-grade concentration.” The company recently filed for patent protection of the new layered solar growth design, its ninth patent application, entitled “Multi-Plane Growth Apparatus and Method.” This new design allows for filters and prisms to assure that only the wavelengths beneficial to algae get through, potentially diverting the rest for optional storage and night-time lighting.

The MultiReactor takes advantage of the fact that much more sun falls on the ground than vegetation can normally absorb. The solution is to capture it all in a stack of growth layers. The new design uses an array of lenses to direct solar radiation from the top through a system of algae channels. Algae culture is pumped continuously to the top of the array and then trickles down through the layers, ensuring equal exposure.

What it means: According to OO’s Scott Fraser, “OriginOil’s invention may finally provide a way to scale up commercial algae production.” Certainly, one of the ongoing challenges of agriculture is to use more solar energy – crops such as corn use only 1-2 percent of the energy available to them. An interesting aspect of this development is that it could be applied to other crops besides algae.

Ceres Energy Group

Platform: Lemna

News: This week, investors in Ceres Energy group have put $300,000 into a lamna growing system, and the group says they have achieved commercial-level productivity – though specific production is undisclosed. Ceres aquaculturist Ned Gaine increased carbon dioxide levels to 3,000 parts per million. CEO Mike SMith said, “We feed this plant enormous amounts of (carbon dioxide), which is coming from the stack. This is our secret sauce, jamming CO2 down this plant’s throat.”

Lemna – also known as duckweed – produces five to six times as much starch per acre as corn, in studies conducted at North Carolina State University. This small-business R&D effort has, in some ways, confirmed what larger companies such as PetroAlgae have been saying about the lemon platform’s productivity and stability. A key difference: PetroAlgae is focused on optimizing light distribution, and does not add CO2, giving it more flexibility in location selection. This project intends to gasify the lemon, resulting in a 33 percent natural gas and 67 percent bio-char mix – the biochar then runs the gasifier, while the project generates up to 1 MW of power per acre of land and $2 million in capital investment.

What it means:
$2 million per megawatt is high but not outrageous for power generation. $3-$4 per megawatt in capital cost is typical for solar while large scale coal-fired power usually runs around $600-$800,000 per MW. A key factor will be the operating costs, as yet undisclosed. A cautionary note: adding co-firing of biomass to a coal-fired power plant runs in the neighborhood of $50,000-$250,000 per MW. In short, it’s still early days in so many ways on this technology.

Joule Unlimited

Platform: Undisclosed, but reliable observes say it’s cyanobacteria. The company reportedly has a portfolio of organisms capable of producing different fuels and chemicals. Essentially, its a first-mover in the group of projects aiming to move directly from solar energy to fuels without an intervening step of producing biomass. Unlike the “electrofuels”, however it is using photosynthesis to capture solar energy — instead of capturing power with a solar panel and passing electricity to the organism to stimulate fuel production (as is the case with “electrofuels”)

What’s news: MIT’s Technology Review named Joule’s technology in its top 10 emerging technologies- unusual in that the company has not disclosed the mechanism or demonstrated the technology at pilot scale. In other news, the company’s pilot will open in Leander, Texas in June, and it has completed a $30 million capital raise. Also, its a closed system, less tricky to operate in the field once the hardware is in place.

What it means: If it works at scale, a complete game-changer. Joule is beginning to accumulate the cash to go from pilot to commercial-scale, which at lab level is achieving 15,000 gallons of fuel per acre and is aimed to be competitive with $30 oil.The system needs a lot of CO2, but a partnership with power plants should work if the organism is tolerant of flue gas exotic particles.

University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Harvard ARPA-E elecrofuels projects

Platform: The Geobacter bacterium, and  Shewanella

The News: ARPA-E awarded $1 million to the Amherst project and $4 million to Harvard’s.  You feed electricity to the bacteria, and it secretes a fuel. This differs from photosynthesis, in which the organism captures a photon to generate energy to power its internal systems. Different also from Solazyme, LS9 or Amyris, which feed sugar to their microorganisms to introduce energy which can be converted to a fuel.

In the case of the Geobacter and Shewanella bacteria, they have an unusual trait: they have little tubes which conduct electricity from inside the organism to the outside. The project goals? To reverse the path and conduct the electricity into the bacterium, and then altering the pathways by which the organism fixes CO2, and thereby produces a target fuel. In the case of Harvard’s project, their target is octanol.

What it means: The ARPA-E projects start this year and finish in 2013. By then, we’ll know if the scientists can do it. Next step, to do it at cost parity with fossil-based oil energy. The third task, to perform at scale. If it works, probably game over in biofuels for a decade – this technology would combine the intense solar collecting power of a solar panel with the fuel conversion capability of an micro-organism. If the fuel-producing mechanism works, it could produce up to 10 times as much fuel for a comparable land footprint, and the cost-reducing potential is immense. But whoa Nelly, this is early, early, early days. These technologies are unlikely toe commercialized, even if possible, in this decade.
Read earlier entries in our occasional Biggie Smalls series

Biggie Smalls, Part II: Microbes and micro-crops shine at biofuels’ Big Dance

Biggie Smalls, Part I: Microcrops go mainstream and head for the big time

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