Zounds, 100% more algae! Leading paradoxically to the Big Feedstock Problem

May 12, 2020 |

A new technology that produces a doubling  of overall biomass in algae and 40 percent in camelina has appeared on the horizon, and I’d like to draw your attention to this work in The Plant Journal and this one in Nature Research. If you’ve been a fan of the New Mexico Consortium, Dick Sayre’s algae research, Los Alamos National Lab’s algae program or the Donald Danforth Plant Center in St. Louis, some of these advances will surprise but not shock you. A very interesting company called Pebble Labs, too.

The Department of Shout-Outs: Some other organizations are not as well-known in the algae or camelina headlines but are a part of this work, including researchers at Stanford, the University of Nebraska, SOKENDAI (Japan), Japan’s National Institute for Basic Biology, CREST (Japan), University of Illinois, and Pusan National University (ROK). We’ll keep an eye on those institutes going forward.

Today, I’d also like to draw your attention to some important ideas driving this advance in algae, as they have implications for an array of feedstocks because this is grounded in a story of sunshine and photosynthesis. We’ll focus on algae here, but when we say algae, think also that the ideas have proven out in camelina as well. Also, we’ll spend a little time looking at The Feedstock Problem that continues to bedevil the deployment of biobased technologies for energy products.

The breakthrough

The researchers write:

Photosynthetic electron transport rates in higher plants and green algae are light-saturated at approximately one quarter of full sunlight intensity. This is due to the large optical cross section of plant light harvesting antenna complexes which capture photons at a rate nearly 10-fold faster than the rate-limiting step in electron transport. As a result, 75% of the light captured at full sunlight intensities is reradiated as heat or fluorescence.

Previously, it has been demonstrated that reductions in the optical cross-section of the light-harvesting antenna can lead to substantial improvements in algal photosynthetic rates and biomass yield. By surveying a range of light harvesting antenna sizes achieved by reduction in chlorophyll b levels, we have determined that there is an optimal light-harvesting antenna size that results in the greatest whole plant photosynthetic performance.

We also uncover a sharp transition point where further reductions or increases in antenna size reduce photosynthetic efficiency, tolerance to light stress, and impact thylakoid membrane architecture. Plants with optimized antenna sizes are shown to perform well not only in controlled greenhouse conditions, but also in the field achieving a 40% increase in biomass yield.

Now, let’s try that in ordinary language

Think of a hot and sunny summer weekend day, and you might plan some pleasant time working in a garden or visiting the beach — well, one day, when we’re released from quarantine, anyway.

If you’re like me, you’ll be applying some sunscreen, and you probably will employ an umbrella or a hat, or spend time under a shady tree in the garden. Without being conscious of it, you’re regulating the light from the sun, because your body is tuned to work best in low-light, lower-heat conditions, one of the reasons that farmers rise early. Semi-consciously, we try to avoid too much ultraviolet radiation, which can make us feel hot and sweaty, and cause sunburn. There’s some blue light in the visible sunlight part of the spectrum that can cause cell damage.

Not something that comes up for discussion at the beach, but the risk of sunburn makes us reduce the amount of sunlight we receive. To do that, we shade ourselves, slowing down the absorption rate. If we do so successfully, we can stay outside and do our tasks or enjoy our day at the beach.

In this respect, we’re not much different from our eukaryotic distant cousins, algae. Our little relatives also struggle when the sun gets intense, they start to shed it as heat. Bottom line, when there’s too much sunlight, algae start up a whole bunch of mechanisms to protect themselves that take away from biomass productivity. In the garden, when you get overwhelmed by heat, you seek out a water or a lemonade, rest under a shady tree, perhaps go inside or at the very least you slow down your work as you fight off the heat stress and sweat.

In algae research, and in crop research as a whole, for a long time there’s been an effort on to use more sunlight and use more energy from the sun to make biomass, or corn, or what have you. We’ve written of discussions over the years to improve the photosynthetic efficiency of Rubisco, so that plants can use more energy to fix more carbon dioxide and produce ultimately more crop.

This new line of research we’re reporting on today goes another way — to better regulate the sunlight that is coming in and being used, so that the algae don’t get stressed, distracted or otherwise go into low-productivity mode. It’s not different than the idea of sunscreen, in some ways, which allows you to spend more time in the sunlight and receive more solar energy by slowing down the absorption of damaging ultraviolet light. Sometimes, what algae need to succeed is a sort of a hat.

And the research is showing that, given a hat, algae begin to produce more biomass because they work in their standard way for longer, same as you would farming in your garden or sunning at your beach.

Less stress, more success.

The broader implications

Sometimes less is more. That’s one lesson in research. The answer is not always more, more, more. More yield, faster rate, higher titer. Sometimes, the optimal strategy is “slow and steady wins the race” And we might think about that for all our terrestrial plants.

In a broader sense, however, the problem for algae remains the same. The appeal is what it has always been, a fabulously productive organism, and it uses sunlight, atmospheric CO2 and water — for which there is no feedstock owner (except perhaps the water) and no charge for the raw materials. Algae make biomass way faster than a corn plant — so why, people ask, aren’t we using algae more broadly as a feedstock for fuels. And, we don’t have the problem of competing uses.

In a nutshell, the problem is not entirely different than the economic problem of slavery — or unpaid internships, if you prefer something milder. Interns work for free but they aren’t cost-free, we need an office to house them, a supervisor to train and watch and motivate them, a set of tools such as desks and computers, and IT support, and so on and on.

Interns can become so expensive to maintain that it is sometimes cheaper to direct the work they might do to an outside contractor (obviously we are referring to the economic aspects of internship, there are altruistic and long-term workforce development reasons to have interns).

Algae have been difficult to afford as a platform for energy production because the housing costs too much taken against the productivity gains versus terrestrial plants. Basically, you have to build a lake to host them, whereas Mother Earth provides the dirt for soil-based crops when you rent the land, and plants have their own systems for moving water 2-3 feet from underground to top of the plant. Algae can’t lift water like plants can, it’s their fundamental weakness.

So, there are energy costs to move water, there are capex costs to build the lake. No one has been able to build something large enough or cheap enough to overcome the advantages that plants have in capex and water-transport. Algae work faster, but they cost more to host than their productivity gain justifies.

They are the little Michael Jordans of the kingdom of life, but they can cost too much to employ no matter how many three-pointers they can score from the perimeter.

The Feedstock Problem

The feedstock problem remains in almost every important respect exactly as it was a generation ago.

Technology opens up new feedstocks, and yet the feedstock cost turns up too little advantage to the project owner to justify the technology shift or adoption risk.

Technology makes it possible to use waste to make a fuel — such as fats, greases, dairy waste, corn stover, waste CO2, brackish water, manure, rendering products, used plastics, carbon monoxide, forest slash or landfill. But a negative-cost feedstock generally will begin to acquire a cost rapidly once the conversion barrier is resolved, and the restaurant owner who used to pay to have the grease removed now receives a check for the goo. Waste feedstock prices almost always rise faster than energy prices, and so the project feasibility reduces over time of deployment. Projects get choked off by margin risk just when they have solved the technology risk.

It’s the same old problem, and technology doesn’t really solve it.

At the end of the day, feedstocks are traded in commodity markets and the prices are highly sensitive to supply and demand forces, and the risk destroys confidence even before the rising costs do.

Almost everything has raw materials, but in the case of, say, an iPhone, the raw materials cost $1.03 for a phone priced at $1200 for an iPhone, says here in an article from 3 years ago.

If raw materials costs double in a month, it’s a catastrophe for fuels, where 70 percent of the cost or more is in the raw materials, but it is almost meaningless to Apple. The company pay $490 for the parts in a $1200 iPhone 11 MAX — so, Apple’s exposure is to shifts in the manufacturing sector, the cost of parts.

Fuels are subject to shifts in the primary sector, the cost of raw materials. Manufacturing costs vary but the swings are much less violent than the shifts in the primary sector.

The petroleum problem

And, there’s the mothership of energy raw materials, petroleum. Currently costs around $15 a barrel, or 4 cents a pound. That’s 80 percent less than the cost of waste greases from your kitchen sink. Last month, the May contract for WTI bottomed out at minus $42 a barrel, or negative $250 per ton. Landfill waste runs at negative $72 a ton, more or less.

When petroleum costs three times less than mixed garbage from landfill, you can see the problem of platform-switching, there’s almost no economic incentive for switchers, and there can be significant disincentives.

The benefits of a bioeconomy are not generally grounded in lower prices to the individual customer. Rather, they offer society-wide benefits such as cleaner air, more diverse sources of energy, energy security for biomass-based and petroleum-deplete nations, and can offer performance benefits such as tolerating high engine compression (in the case of ethanol) or being less likely to leak (in the case of FDCA plastics). The performance benefits sometimes generate higher consumer prices, not always.

Our economic model centers around price and fuel compatibility, since engines are built to a standard, the fuel just has to work, better fuels don’t always get better prices because engines don’t always change to realize those benefits.

Altruism and coercion

Consequently, we expect renewable fuels to compete with fossil fuels based on altruism and coercion. The former means getting people to choose a better fuel that can cost more but brings no individual benefit to the consumer, yet brings societal benefits to all. The latter means establishing mandates to force renewable fuels into a market when otherwise there would be resistance from incumbents and some consumers.

Altruism and coercion are short-term strategies. There are never enough altruists and their enthusiasm flags over time, and there are too many people who just dislike coercion, and their enthusiasm for fighting it increases over time. And, there is the problem of the incumbents, who see coercion as an attempt to award market share at their expense. Which it is.

When we attack someone else’s way of life or economic model, don’t be surprised when they try and send you to the devil.

What’s the fix?

What’s needed is willpower, because the fix is obvious. When governing authorities reform markets to expand the price configuration to include energy value, performance value and carbon value, renewable fuels do very well, and society advances. Low Carbon Fuel Standards may not be perfect, but they are the best example of how to reform a market.

Markets often need reform when there is a market failure that is intolerable. The SEC was invented to reform equity markets. The FDA was invented to reform drug markets. The Federal Reserve was invented to reform banking markets. Prior to the founding of each, there were market failures that became intolerable — the misery spread too quickly and too intensely than markets could self-organize.to fix problems. The same thing that happened with COVID-19, by the way, which was a market failure in the high-value business of pandemic prevention, and only incidentally a health crisis.

It’s obvious to many that there is a market failure in carbon regulation, and mechanisms like the Paris Agreement have sprung up haphazardly and not-too-boldly to reform carbon markets. You see, there always has been a carbon market, since the dawn of time, it is just that in this market there has been almost no demand. The reform aims to stimulate demand for lower carbon technology until we have created a new normal in our economy at scale.

However, the reforms have not effectively addressed liquid transportation. To the extent that transport has been addressed, reformers have aimed at electrifying the fleet and shifting energy carriers from liquids to particles. Aside from the fact that it’s a bad idea to replace one monopoly technology platform with another, there’s the pressing problem of heavy transport, and carbon reformers have been late and lame on heavy all along, and are not working hard on catching up. Makes them poor reformers, by the way.

Which is why, in the meanwhile, we might be highly attentive and supportive when a feedstock productivity advance of huge dimension comes along, because it reduces the risks for those who will use algae as a feedstock, until the carbon reformers wake up and get on with the job.

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