The Wild, Wild Wet: More algae ventures and projects bloom

May 19, 2010 |
Algae under development at Sapphire Energy's research lab in La Jolla, California

Algae under development at Sapphire Energy's research lab in La Jolla, California

Just when early-stage companies like Algenol have partnered up with Valero, Dow and Linde; PetroAlgae with Indian Oil; Martek with BP; Synthetic Genomics with ExxonMobil; Solazyme with Chevron; and Sapphire Energy continuing to attract a stream of senior execs from BP, Ex-Im Bank and elsewhere, it’s been starting to feel like the algae biofuels movement has grown into an industry.

It also might appear to readers that the “wild, wild wet” period is over, that innovation will increasingly focus on a handful of companies as they pursue cost parity and scale.

Partly true: the leaders in the algae biofuels space have made screaming progress with strategic investors and developing their commercial-scale strategies and technologies.

I doubt if the Clinton Administration foresaw, in 1996 when they shut down the Aquatic Species program, that 2010 would see virtually every oil major tied up in the algae race, the Navy placing fuel orders, several airlines testing algal biofuels, and Sapphire laying down a vision to reach 1 billion gallons in production, all by its onesy, by 2025.

But wait, there’s more

However, in the tradition of Ginzu knife infomercials – “But wait, there’s more!”

A whole passel of algae companies and ventures are still entering the marketplace, and the Digest today, in Top Story, is dedicated to highlighting just a few of the new. Some of these – in the grand tradition of algal development – are coming out with claims that make you get out your Cliff Notes version of the Laws of Thermodynamics.

But all of them make you marvel at the creativity and persistent entrepreneurship of it all. Bold, brash, brainy – algae has it all. here are some updates on companies from the Wild, Wild Wet.

7 Brides for 7 Investors

In Kentucky, Alltech announced that it will establish the world’s second largest algae farm in Kentucky, and will announce the location in August. Alltech, primarily known as a nutritional supplements maker, said that the deal for land is still under negotiation, but said that the company believed that its algae operations could realize up to 5,000 gallons per acre.

In Texas, Photon8 CEO Brad Bartilson said that his company’s “Traveling Wave Tube” photobioreactor technology can boost algal growth production rates by 500 percent, has slashed production costs associated with other PBR technologies, and has been genetically modifying its algae to double lipid production. Photon8 is presented at the Algae World Summit earlier this week in San Diego.

In Illinois, students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed an algae biofuels photobioreactor, using a collection of parts including an old Apple G4 CPU tower, an Apple iMac CRT, PVC pipes, a Dell Latitude CPX laptop, acrylic panels, and foam. The project’s goal? Bringing algae biofuel production down to the household level, with the project team estimating that a deployment of the BioGrow technology in around 7 million homes would produce enough biodiesel to replace petroleum as a diesel feedstock. The developers say that their algae can be harvested every three days, and can sell for up to a dollar per gallon – with a proposed central collection system that would transport the algae to a biorefinery for oil extraction and conversion to fuel.

In Wales, Merlin Biodevelopments said that it is using anaerobic digestion to harness electric energy from cow slurry and food waste, to bring down the cost of producing protein-laden algae for food consumption, using a closed PBR system. The company has developed a bench-level project at the Moelyci Environmental Centre in Tregarth. The company said it is capturing waste CO2 from waste, as well, and characterized its operation as a means of producing high-value protenin from low-value land.

In Pennsylvania, Berks County state Representative David Kessler has driven through a $175,000 award for a feasibility study for algal biofuels production — and said that he has been collaborating with Colorado-based Algae at Work as well as two unnamed “multi-billion dollar” companies in Houston and DC on the prospects for biofuels in the Keystone State. The feasibility study is due within five months.

In California, Jose Olivares updated Xconomy’s Bruce Bigelow on progress at the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts (NAABB). Olivares said that the consortium of more than 20 companies and universities is primarily focused on increasing algae production rates to more than 20 grams per square meter per day, and developing cost-effective water and oil extraction systems. By contrast, a typical US soy farm develops an average of 1 gram of soybeans per square meter per day. The consortium has a three-year budget of $69 million from the DOE and cost-shares from the institutions.

In Missouri, Phycal announced that it is moving out of the lab and into the BioResearch and Development Growth Park at the Danforth Plant Science Center, with a 2800 square foot facility. Phycal, which was co-founded by Dr. Richard Sayre, Director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Danforth Plant Science Center; Chief Scientist of the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts (NAABB); and Director of the Center for Advanced Biofuels Systems (CABS). The company is based in Ohio, where it is part of the Logos Energy Group, and is building a pilot project in Hawaii that will open this year.

Why Hawai’i? According to Phycal, “energy costs in Hawai’i are the highest in the United States, and its principal source of electricity is oil-fired plants that consume more than 400 million gallons of petroleum-based fuels annually. Phycal’s system can deliver algal oil at a competitive price for the Hawai’i market.” The company also points to the Hawai’i Clean Energy Initiative, which sets stringent clean energy targets. Successful demonstration and testing of components, system performance, and products will support deployment of a commercial scale farm as soon as 2015.

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