Separation at the heart of algae industry challenge

| September 1, 2011

By Hoyt Thomas, CEO, OpenAlgae

If the entire algae industry isn’t suffering from a case of separation anxiety, it should be.  Investors, CEOs, scientists.  Dealing with the separation issue is perhaps the biggest obstacle we face.  But that’s not what you’ll read on most algae companies’ websites.

Whether the cause is ever-increasing fossil fuel costs, concern about carbon, or simply scientific progress, algae has moved onto the world’s “fuel radar.”  For the customers, policy makers, regulators and environmentalists pushing for alternative fuels, that’s good news.  For the algae and algae-technology companies that have benefitted from global investment in their industries, it’s very, very good news, indeed.

The bad news?  The industry has yet to solve the separation question.  Compared to the well-developed soy and palm crops that provide oils for biodiesel, algae is a very immature crop, and interest in its potential as a meaningful, economically feasible alternative fuel is still relatively young.  Simply put, the industry is still figuring out how to grow and process algae – and recover its oils – quickly, efficiently and affordably, and in a way that can be scaled enough to take the promise of algae out of science books and into America’s fuel mix. That takes time and money.

Separation and oil recovery are rather complex.  Whether we’re talking about algae, yeast or bacteria, individual droplets of oil have a tendency to emulsify in water.  Big Oil knows this emulsion problem intimately from managing water-flooded oil wells, and biotech innovators are beginning to see.  The claim that “oil floats to the surface” is a gross oversimplification.  A percentage of the oil does float, but the rest doesn’t, and recovering every drop of the oil is essential if algae-oil is to become a legitimate alternative.  Oil companies – or any company that will depend on algae production – will demand that cost-effective separation solutions are in place before they commit the capital required for scale up.

In the meantime, algae companies are discovering that their search for biofuel has some high-value byproducts and applications in existing markets.  For example, algae can produce Omega 3 fatty acids that yield the health benefit of fish oil but eliminate the need for fish.  Companies are using algae by-products in cosmetics, dietary supplements, fertilizer and even as toxic waste treatment.  These products are available now, and the revenue it generates is helping companies fund their R&D of future uses, like fuel.

But these short-term algae byproducts don’t solve the separation problem.  In fact, they too suffer from it.  It slows things down and increases costs.  If they had a better way to separate, they would achieve higher margins and open markets for new co-products. The more we talk to people around the world – whether they are working on better ways to grow algae or how to process and sell it – the more we hear the same refrain: “This whole algae thing would take off a lot faster if we had a simple, affordable and scalable separation solution.”

At OpenAlgae, we’re addressing the separation issue head on.  Our company has assembled a cross-functional team that includes leading researchers in multiple fields – one of the perks of being a joint venture with the University of Texas at Austin.  So we are keenly, and we think uniquely, aware and armed to take on the multi-disciplinary challenge that algae separation poses to the entire industry. Our team understood from the start that algae must be processed wet, without using a solvent, and the technologies have to work for all algae strains.

We’ve demonstrated that our electric pulsing technology can break algae cells and free the oil.  Our active oil recovery technique collects oil that floats and also combs oil out of the water and away from the biomass.  Perhaps most important, the algae-specific techniques we’re bringing to market are more efficient and a fraction of the cost of current techniques.  We have a production unit in place to provide real-world validation of what we’ve demonstrated in our lab.

Millions of years of evolution have been good for algae, and they’re quite protective of the prize that scientists are now trying to pry from their cellular walls.  The industry has learned a great deal about different potential approaches, but most of them are still too cumbersome, energy intensive or expensive for practical and scalable production.  Make no mistake: the race to find a quick, efficient, affordable…and scalable solution must be won soon.  And overcoming the industry’s separation anxiety may be the highest hurdle.

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