Algae keep on rockin' in the free world: Pt 2, Get this Party Started

February 15, 2011 |

Here’s a look at some (but far from all) of the movers and shakers

Note: This is Part II of today’s look at algal biofuels, part one is here.

Sapphire Energy

Pink's "Get this Party Started"

Sapphire Energy is focused on the entire “pond to pump” value chain with over 230 patents or applications spanning the entire algae-to-fuel process.  They are developing industrial algae strains through synthetic biology and breeding techniques and are building the technologies and systems for CO2 utilization, cultivation, harvesting and refining.

Sapphire’s commercialization path aims for 1 billion gallons in the 2020s, while ExxonMobil’s biofuels chief Emil Jacobs has candidly discussed algae in 10-year timelines. Although the National Labs have occasionally been chided for thinking in “elongated timelines,” there are major commercial players thinking in the same time frames.


The company generally shies away from promoting itself as an algal biofuels company, because it focuses its messaging around its products rather than its process – same, by the way, as Budweiser.

Biggest news lately – a partnership with Qantas to develop renewable jet fuels, and the widely-circulated expectation that Solazyme will file its S-1 registration form for an IPO by the end of March.

Solazyme made the decision several years ago to grow heterotrophic algae in the dark and harvest renewable oils – and have become the unquestioned leader in the quest to make an integrated biorefinery commercially successful in the production of renewable oils for fuels, foods and other bio-based products. Along the ways they’ve racked up an impressive array of partners, and won contracts to supply biofuels to the US Department of Defense. More importantly, in every way, they have personified throughout their organization what it means to be an advanced bio-based company – in the ways that they have triumphed, and in the ways they have faced adversity.”

Joule Unlimited

The secretive Joule Unlimited (then known as Joule Biotechnologies) emerged late last year from “stealth mode” with the startling announcement that their technology could produce up to 15,000 gallons per acre (per year) of drop-in hydrocarbon fuels, using only sunlight, CO2 and (fresh, brackish or saline) water as inputs. The Solar Converter – including radical new micro-organism and a technology known as helioculture – is the heart of Joule’s IP.

Did it the announcement change everything? No. Will it change the biofuels competitive landscape? It already has, and conceptually contains those Four Horsemen of a Market Apocalyse that VC so dearly love: disruptive, scalable, competitive, protected technology.

Joule fuel was reputed by its backers to be competitive with $30 oil. The company is now operating a pilot plant in Leander, Texas; they say they have demonstrated proof of concept on 10 renewable chemicals back in the lab they describe as “blendstock for end products”.

Aurora Algae

Aurora’s key technology? An optimized strain of pale green, salt-water algae, lighter in color than wild-type algae, allowing deeper penetration of sunlight, thereby extending the zone for algae reproduction and increasing yield.  The company has also adapted a technique used in the waste-water industry for low-cost algal harvesting.

Recently, the company said it would transition from a pilot technology development to full-scale commercialization of the Company’s proprietary algae products, including high concentration eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA Omega-3 fatty acids), high-density proteins, fish meal and biodiesel.

CEO Greg Bafalis said recently, “We were focused on location, and saltwater algae that would get out of all those questions about water consumption. Also, we had a pilot that has been running successfully for three years. We did a very through research, and we focused in on Australia because it had the right characteristics. Along the Northwest shelf we found an old algae farm, and there’s plenty of co2 from local natural gas production. Western Australia has just the right combination of light, heat, and dry weather. We are constructing now and expect to be finished in January 2011.


Algenol Biofuels and Dow Chemical are in the process of constructing a $50 million pilot algae biofuels plant in Freeport, Texas. The plant will be located with Dow’s existing chemicals complex, and will supply CO2 as well as land for the pilot algae facility. Dow said that it was interested in Algenol’s ability to use algae to produce ethanol, which could be used as a base for making ethylene, which is in turn a feedstock for many types of chemicals. The plant is designed to produce 100,000 gallons of ethanol per year at a target price of between $1.00 and $1.25 per gallon, according to CEO Paul Woods, who added that groundbreaking is expected to commence this year. Traditionally, chemical companies have been using natural gas as an ethylene feedstock.


OK, it’s not strictly algae – its duckweed, a microscopic flowering plant. But then, Algenol and Joule are using cyanobacteria, and Solazyme, which is using microalgae, would prefer not to highlight it. Which just shows that the term’s “algae” has developed its own, er, reality distortion field.

What does PetroALgae do. Their take: “PetroAlgae applies leading-practice biochemistry when growing micro-organisms into micro-crops, and focuses on precisely managing exposure to light, greatly enhancing yield. Growth is in one-hectare open pond bioreactors and harvested daily producing two products—high value protein and biocrude. The biocrude is sent to existing refineries for conversion into renewable, drop-in fuels.”

In addition to its fuel business, PetroAlgae has developed a nutritional product for animal feed and human food markets.  This plant-based protein will provide an alternative for fishmeal, protein concentrates and isolates in current market segments.

PetroAlgae was most recently in the news with MOU with Indian Oil, a partnership with Foster Wheeler, and licensing in China and North Africa. The company’s model farm is 12,500 acres and produces 60 Mgy of fuel and as much or more value in proteins, according to company execs.


Algal fuel industry systems developer OriginOil made the Hot 50 for a second year in a row, climbing to #42. In May, Australia’s MBD Energy became the company’s first algae-producing customer. Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies, is a cornerstone investor in MBD Energy.

OriginOi announced in early January that that it has adopted an operating plan that focuses on commercializing its industry leading algae extraction technology platform. This new single focus on extracting oil from algae strategically positions the company to provide the critical connection between algae growers and refiners.

“Extraction is a critical bottleneck in commercial algae production,” the company said. “A scalable and proven solution to the extraction challenge is vital to the future of the fast-growing algae industry.”


Phycal 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.

NAABB consortium

Last January, the news came through that a consortium called the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts had received a $44 million grant from the Department of Energy. Principal investigator and organizer Jose Olivares later noted: “It’s the first time I’ve put a consortium of this size together. You learn as you go. We had several principles. One, inclusiveness, to make sure you had a broad perspective, from the national labs, academia and industry. Two, understanding the  algae value chain as best as we could, and making sure we had good organizations in each area. The third, I think may be the one that made us click, was being transparent and being supportive. Not coming in with “mine is better than yours” but how could we build this together. When it came to the hard decisions, it made it possible to have an attitude that the “best outcome” was important. That helped.”

Partners are: Los Alamos National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, University of Arizona, Brooklyn College, Colorado State University, New Mexico State University, Texas AgriLife Research, Texas A&M University System, University of California Los Angeles, University of California San Diego, University of Washington, Washington University in St. Louis, Washington State University, AXI, Catilin, Diversified Energy, Eldorado Biofuels, Genifuel, HR BioPetroleum, Inventure, Kai BioEnergy, Palmer Labs, Solix Biofuels, Targeted Growth, Terrabon, UOP.


Cost, cost, cost – that is, driving the costs down rather than running them up – that’s been the sole focus at Photon8, which is one of the emerging entities working on closed photobioreactor systems. Despite the reputation of the closed PBR for costing just too much to make algal fuels competitively, or in many ventures so far, even making chemicals or lower-end nutraceuticals uneconomic — Photon8 says it is modeling a diesel fuel cost of $1.25 per US gallon.

Their secret sauce? According to a recent report in AI online, “Photon8 has demonstrated photobioreactor production rate equal to 1.5 gal/square meter/yr and is on its way to an expected rate of 22,000 gal per 2.5 acre/yr then to best economic units of 5 acres. It believes further development may bring it close to 10,000 gal/acre/yr as a basis for planning large production systems.”

Another secret in its algal sauce: Photon8 says that it has discovered how to produce hydrocarbons straight from algae to be used as drop-in fuels.

The company, currently operating continuous process systems outdoors, is seeking to raise $2.8M to fund the first year of its next phase, which includes construction of its demo plant. The company said “a wide set of exit opportunities are expected upon completion of the first year of PhaseII with a projected valuation of $259M.”

UK Carbon Trust

The UK Carbon Trust is currently shopping a business plan to investors, based on its three-year Algae Biofuels Challenge ABC. The project was developed, including scoping, putting an internal team together, reviewing more than 80 proposals, and selecting and contracting with finalists. The goal was to start in 2011 with a pilot-project site in North Africa, the Middle East, or other geographies with similar characteristics. Then, the UK government pulled its support – citing budgetary constraints, and noting that the project had long timelines, was not UK-based in its pilot, and according to observers, was “not high tech enough”.

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