Excalibur: Mighty Claims, Mighty Prizes, and the problem of myth in bioenergy

March 22, 2011 |

Deluged by biofuels invention, we all struggle to separate the real from the surreal

There are no shortage of reasons why high-yield biofuels, particularly microalgae, continue to fascinate practically everyone in the pursuit of alternative energy.  Carbon fixation, water remediation, and local economic opportunity are among the many offered fruits.

But those exotic yields, and associated low costs of production, are the magnetic attractors of attention, drawing us towards companies and their claims like trumpets calling hounds to the hunt.

What do we hear? 10,000 gallons per acre – garden-variety algal biofuels ventures toss those figures up. We’ve heard 100,000 gallons per acre from Vertigro. 20 or even 50 tons of biomass produced per acre, per year. Solar fuels of the Joule Unlimited types with yields in the 15,000 gallons (ethanol) range per year. We have received reports this month of arundo donax trials in Washington state getting up to 50 tons of biomass per acre per year. There is never any shortage of claimants, or claims.

The Sword in the Stone

High-yield biofuels at scale: they have been described as the Holy Grail, but perhaps is more like Sword in the Stone, Excalibur.

It’s the familiar script. Imprisoned from a lack of appropriate technology, tempting all who pass it, conferring greatness on whomsoever removes it, and heretofore resisting all attempts to unlock its promise. Now teased out, and available for the saving of Western Civ, via latter-day magic, all available in parity-priced packages – with just a little investment needed to push it right over the top.

“Who so Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of England,” goes this section of the Arthurian legend.

As in the Arthurian legends, there are no shortage of suitors. Their launches, claims, failures, and progress draw as rapt attention from the followers of the biofuels story as the Sword in the Stone legends mezmerized readers back in the day.

We rarely receive the claims in the form of third-party reviewed data, actual patents, or actual gallonage divided by actual acreage at scale. Our thinner gruel is composed from pilot acres, beaker trials, and sometimes less. Who knows how much juice is in the nutrient stream, or exactly what the writers of press releases are smoking. Some of it is real, some of it is downright surreal.

But it is a hard fact that two generations ago, 12 bushels of wheat per acre was an accepted yield (on grandfather’s farm), and today, the average is probably closer to 45, and some areas bring in as much as 100. It’s happened with corn and soy and a dozen other crops. Throwing out every claim that happens to be an outlier makes even less sense than believing in all of them.

So we watch, sometimes fitfully, sometimes warily, sometimes cautiously, sometimes hopefully, but always we watch – not always sure whether it is a pending failure or the arrival of the longed-for prince that has caught our eyes. Our Arthurian longing never goes a few days without some new technology or advance to slake our thirst.

This week, as World Biofuels Markets opens in Rotterdam, is no different. Several high-yield announcements appeared yesterday, and exemplify the trend.

OriginOil’s Algae Screen

In California, OriginOil announced Algae Screen, a process that keeps algae healthy and productive by selectively eliminating  microscopic predators without the use of chemicals. The technology employs an electromagnetic pulse, similar to what is used to achieve Live Extraction. OriginOil will offer Algae Screen and Live Extraction in one integrated offering for growers. The company recently filed for patent protection of the new Algae Screen technology, its twelfth patent application, entitled “Enhancing Algae Growth by Reducing Competing Microorganisms in a Growth Medium.”

Microscopic invaders, such as rotifers, reduce the value of the algae crop by metabolizing valuable oil and biomass. Additionally, invasions can choke off algae growth and reduce the percentage of daily harvest. The problem exists in all types of growth systems, but most acutely in open ponds.

“All algae are targets for invasion. Oil-rich algae are particularly attractive to rotifers and other microscopic predators,” said Paul Reep, Senior VP of Technology.  “Algae Screen will protect an algae culture continuously from microscopic invaders, such as rotifers, bacteria, and ciliates. An additional unique benefit is that it integrates fully with Live Extraction, since it is based on similar technology.”

Bard Holdings’ 8 million gallons per acre

In Pennsylvania, BARD Holding announced its shift from research and development to the commercialization phase of their zero-waste algae production system. The company forwarded a lengthy press release to the Digest yesterday touting its modular, highly scalable system of photobioreactors, and BARD CEO Surajit Khanna said that “After nearly four years of experimentation and development, our technologies have demonstrated proven success and we are ready to focus on fast-track commercialization.”

We last published a HOT 50 candidate profile of BARD back in August 2009, including a company-submitted claim of productivities of more than 8 million gallons per acre per year. A reader wrote: “Do the math– 8,571,428 gal/acre/year comes out to 5.8 gal/day/m2 or 222 kWh/m2/day. This is more than 50x the energy intensity of the sun (4 kWh/m2/day in PA) at 100% conversion. The best theoretical conversion efficiency is 11%, so we are talking about 500x more energy than the sun. If they can do this, it would indeed be a hot company– in fact they would need a cooling tower to dissipate the energy not converted to algae.How about contacting the company and finding out what they mean before posting numbers that don’t make sense? I would believe an extraction plant could produce 5.8 gal/m2/day, but for a growth photo-bioreactor, this is 1000 times the optimistic estimates for solar algae.”

ENEnergy’s 100 tons of biomass per hectare

In Australia, Norway’s ENEnergy this week identified Western Australia’s West Canning Basin as its preferred location for a 12 Mgy facility for producing ethanol from giant cane, using a steam explosion based technology for cellulosic ethanol processing. “Australia has a vast amount of land that is not suitable for standard agriculture but is suitable to grow high density biomass crops like arundo donax (or Giant Cane). This crop will grow in very poor conditions and produce around 100 dry tonnes of biomass per hectare,” Mr Bjornenak said. “Using the ENEnergy technology and biomass from purpose built plantations we can produce large quantities of ethanol at approximately $30 per barrel.”

Bjornenak added that 15 million hectares (approximately 2% of Australia’s land mass) could be suitable for growing Giant Cane without displacing any potential food production.

Dyadic’s enzyme behemoth lands a patent

In Florida, the US Patent Office granted patent number 7906309 to a group from Dyadic for “novel enzymes derived from filamentous fungi, especially from strains of the genus Chrysosporium, and to coding sequences and expression-regulating sequences for these enzymes.” Dyadic has claimed a path towards the production of proteins or polypeptides at the industrial level, that solved the cost problems of producing industrial enzymes at affordable costs using the traditional platform of e.coli. After the investigation of the claims by the USPTO, here we have a patent issued.

Bottom line?

100 tons per hectare? 8 million gallons per acre per year. We find those too fantastic to support even a modern-day Druid’s belief in the magical possibilities of production. But then, we look at Dyadic’s patent, and Origin Oil’s announcements, or the kinds of production numbers that are (more cautiously, hedgingly) advanced by Joule Unlimited – and we ask ourselves if we are not still in the transformative period of advanced biofuels technologies. Where giant leaps can be achieved by real companies.

And we are thereby reminded that just because Leondegrance could not pull the sword out of the stone is no proof that there is no Arthur. Disappointed we must prepare to be, often, along the path towards the Grail, but not all claims are baseless simply because they are profound.

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