Heard it Through the Grapevine: Useful facts and scuttlebutt from the Algae Biomass Summit

| September 27, 2012

Algae's renowned "Doctor No," John Benemann, leads an ABO panel looking at expansion around the globe

Jobs, global expansion, proteins vs fuels, new R&D funding – all the big issues are under debate both on and off the floor at the Algae Biomass Summit.

In Colorado, the Algae Biomass Summit, which attracted 800 people this year, four days of presentations, including multi-tracked sessions, provides a huge data stream for attendees. Plus, there’s the buzz in the hallway to consider.

Three of the themes that we heard about consistent were job creation, global expansion, and “feed vs fuel” (a lively discussion about whether the opportunities in the protein markets would drive development of algae fuels as a co-product, or the other way around).

Let’s look at some of the data stream.

Jobs

Dr. John Benemann projected on stage that, today, the global algae industry directly employs 10,000 people in research, development, and deployment. South Korea’s C.G. Lee noted that the two largest projects in Korea are now employing 260 people between them, and estimated that Korean algae employment has reached 500. Muradel exec David Lewis estimated that Australia is also now employing 500 people full-time in algae research, development and deployment – noting that every one of Australia’s 39 universities now has at least one researcher working in the field.

Algenol CEO Paul Woods noted that the average salary at Algenol’s main facility in Florida is now $93,000, compared to an average household income for Lee County, FL as a whole of less than 50,000.

Sapphire Energy CEO Cynthia Warner noted that, in creating 6000 equivalent full-time jobs in the construction of their demonstration facility in Columbus, New Mexico, that 57 percent of Columbus’ population had been living below the US poverty line prior to Sapphire’s arrival. A factor in Columbus’ struggle. Saltwater intrusion into groundwater had had a devastating effect on the local agricultural industry. (Sapphire utilizes brackish water for its open-pond algae).

In her own remarks to the Summit, Sarah Bittleman, Senior Advisor to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, noted enthusiasm for the algae industry’s potential to be a source of jobs in rural areas, since those locations will be ideal for algae production facilities and infrastructure.

Global expansion

L. Hunter Lovins, President of Natural Capitalism Solutions urged attendees during a morning keynote address to envision the algae industry as one solution to global challenges that include food shortages, freshwater supply disruptions, ocean acidification and rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Using algae to produce renewable fuels, feed and other products has the potential to address all of these problems because algae can produce enormous yields over other feedstocks, can clean wastewater as they grow, and absorb carbon dioxide.

Vitor Vieira, the chief development officer at Algafuel, itself a spin-out from Necton, gave a lightning-fast overview of a relatively startling level of expansion in Europe.

Among companies to watch, he highlighted Microohyt and Fermentalg; a 1-hectare Roquette klotze pilot utilizing chlorella; Archimede richerche; a 1-hectare pilot project from Boots, the UK-based retailer, in partnership with pml photobioreactor; a 5-acre project in Cadiz, Spain by Aurantia; France’s Activ’alg; a 600 square meter pilot from Novagreen in Germany; a small 85 m3 pilot by Algosource technologies.

He also noted that Eni has a 1 hectare project underway in Italy, Ecoduna is developing in Austria,
Phytolutions in Germany, and Algaenergy, Fitoplancton, EEM/BFS are active in Spain. In Belgium, he highlighted a 500 m2 pilot from Proviron, while noting that Ingrepro is making progress in the Netherlands.

The development of algae R&D clusters is well underway in the EU, as well. Vieira highlighted Algae clusters such as Biofat, All-gas, Intesusal, Giavap, Aquafuels, Algae parc, En algae, BBSRC, Biomara, Shamash and Algohub, as well as a cluster building up at the UK’s Cranfield University

Proteins vs fuels

On the floor at the Summit, Heliae chairman Frank Mars, looking not only at the growth of algae as a technology but looking at the global food situation as Mars & Co is seeing it, cautioned that opportunities in the fuel markets may be overwhelmed by the opportunities in protein for algae-related technologies.

Fast-rising populations are a factor – and difficulties in matching population growth to food supply growth. “The per-calorie cost of healthy food is rising fast,” he cautioned, “and the kind of weather we’re seeing this year – more intensive rains and storms, changing patterns of drought – these are going to be some of the first effects of global warming that we are going to really feel. It really puts a challenge on agriculture.”

Did you know?

The largest currently active next-gen algae biofuels facility in the world? According to Vitor Vieira, it’s the A4F / Secil prototype and pilot in the EU, which has a capacity of 250,000 gallons as of this year.

How big?

The DOE now has a US potential capacity of 0.5 quadrillion BTUs, or 5 billion gallons of algae-based fuel per year, as a goal that is feasible in the near-term, in terms of the US’s capacity in sunlight, water, nutrients, available sites and CO2. Note that the DOE’s capacity taregt is based on a conservative estimate of 13 grams per square meter per day of algae growth. Earlier this year, Scripps Oceanography chief described 25 grams per square meter per day as “table stakes” – while DOE acting Biomass Program chief Valerie Reed said that the next round of research was likely to target a 35 grams per square meter per day productivity.

Problems in R&D?

Several attendees noted problems in collaboration and knowledge-sharing between algae companies. Australia’s Dr. David Lewis said that collaboration was proceeding well at the academic level, but that IP concerns were causing problems in data-sharing between companies doing advanced application development.

Other attendees noted that the speed of algae-based development was simply overwhelming the time-scales for traditional peer-reviewed journal publication – noting that by the time articles made it through the peer review process, that the information was outdated. Some noted that private research efforts were getting so far ahead of academic research efforts that it was becoming difficult to find peers with sufficient knowledge of the latest developments in the arts.

At the same time, Lewis cautioned “the gold rush is over in terms of government-funded research, so we’re seeing a lot more efforts at collaborating, and we are going to need to see a lot more.”

Moving on, moving up in Karratha

One of the hotbeds of development around the world has been at Karratha, on the north-west Australian coastline, where both Muradel and Aurora Algae constructed pilots in the past couple of years.

Aurora couldn’t be more bullish about Karratha. Today, the company announced that it has consistently hit established production goals of 12-15 tonnes of algal biomass per month. The facility, consisting of six 4,000 square meter (one acre) ponds, is a prelude to a planned full-scale facility, which is set to break ground in 2014 and will consist of 250 acres of algae ponds capable of producing up to 600 metric tons of algal biomass per month. The company eventually plans to scale the site up to 1,000 acres.

At the same time, Muradel said that they would move to Whyalla, South Australia for the next phase in their evolution. An industrial center, Whyalla is on the southern coast line, roughly 250 kilometers northwest of Adelaide. The reason for the shift? It’s too hot in Karratha to maintain respiration rates that lead to optimal algae growth, Muradel found – also noting the tendency of the northwest coast of Australia to attract cyclonic activity.

New Funding Opportunity from the US DOE

Last year, the DOE issued a request for information in the algae industry, aimed at re-setting its goals in light of new advances, and new stumbling blocks. In addition to setting aggressive growth targets at the 35 grams per square meter per day level, acting Biomass Program head Valerie Reed said that, as an outcome from the industry response, the DOE is likely to target a 40 percent reduction in operating costs with a 2013 funding opportunity announcement.

New goals for the Algae Biomass Organization

ABO executive director Mary Rosenthal noted that the ABO would be making efforts to substantially increase its state-level efforts. One goal – to help members navigate the different regulations and procedures that vary widely at the state level. Also, ABO is expecting to form a 501c3 foundation, to build an endowment that will especially target education and outreach efforts.



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