April 17, 2012

Algae-based Biofuel: Pros And Cons

There is no perfect energy source. Each and every one has its own advantages and compromises. This series will explore the pros and cons of various energy sources. Learn about other forms of energy generation here.

Algae–based biofuel is a new energy source that has been getting a lot of attention lately. Certain types of algae contain natural oils that can be readily distilled into a vegetable oil or a number of petroleum-like products that could serve as drop-in replacements for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

But because it’s a bio-fuel, it is essentially carbon-neutral because the carbon emitted when it is burned had just recently been absorbed as food, which means that the net CO2 emission is essentially the same as if the algae had never been grown. That does not include CO2 utilized in production. Industry claims assert that algae-based bio-diesel has a GHG footprint that is 93 percent less than conventional diesel. Some algae production is sited near sources of CO2 such as power plants, in a kind of symbiotic relationship. Algae-based fuel yields considerably more energy per unit area than other bio-fuels. It can also be grown on land otherwise unsuitable for agriculture. The technology is quickly moving out of the lab and into commercial scale production. A number of companies developing refineries include Solazyme, Sapphire Energy (which just last week announced another $144 million in funding) and OPXBIO. Aviation trials with several airlines including United and Qantas have been successfully completed using fuel blends of up to 40 percent algae-derived fuel.

Algae was initially raised in large shallow ponds which produced about 5,000 gallons per acre-year and required a fair amount of water to compensate for evaporation. More recently, companies have migrated to vertical photo bio-reactors (PBRs) that are gravity fed, with no evaporation, and in which 85 percent of the water is recycled along with excess nutrients and CO2.

Here is a list of pros and cons for algae-based biofuels.


  • Bio-based fuel with essentially carbon neutral combustion
  • Drop in replacement for petroleum-based liquid fuels
  • Inherently renewable
  • Absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows
  • Both waste CO2 and wastewater can be used as nutrients
  • Higher energy per-acre than other bio-fuels
  • Can be grown on land unsuitable for other types of agriculture
  • Scalable: Study found that 17 percent of U.S. oil imports could be met with algae
  • Investments are being made
  • Production is presently scaling up (Navy buying 100,000 gallons this year)
  • Research has been underway for 50 years


  • Need to be grown under controlled temperature conditions
  • Requires a considerable amount of land and water
  • Cold flow issues with algal biofuel
  • Some researchers using genetic engineering to develop optimal algae strains
  • Requires phosphorus as a fertilizer which is becoming scarce
  • Fertilizer production is carbon dependent
  • Relatively high upfront capital costs
  • Not clear yet what the ultimate cost per gallon will be. Presently too high.

In summary, algae-based bio-fuel is a promising energy source that is in the latter stages of development. A number of issues related to the ultimate cost of the product need to be resolved, but there is a good deal of research money going into this as production is beginning to scale up. Land issues can be addressed using marginal land. Water can be recycled in reactors. Cold flow issues might result in the fuels being blended with other fuels or possibly additives. Fertilizer issues could be addressed using waste streams, thereby recycling the critical nutrients. Time will tell, though I believe this is an important technology to watch.

Original post available here.

NASA one step closer to turning algae into fuel

NASA has been working to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and it's now getting some help from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Tuesday the space agency showed off its efforts to turn algae into fuel.

Imagine an oil well of the future as a kind of oil farm where the humble micro algae is grown in such vast amounts that it reduces our dependence on fossil fuels.

"It moved it from basically a 20-gallon system to a 450-gallon system and now the next step will be, can we put this offshore somewhere with not four bioreactors, but 400 bioreactors," said Jonathon Trent, Ph.D., the NASA scientist behind the OMEGA (Off-shore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae) Project. The project's goal is to produce a sustainable, renewable, carbon neutral fuel, bio-diesel from algae, farmed in plastic containers off-shore.

After two years, $10 million from NASA and $800,000 from the state, Trent and his team think they've found a way, using wastewater as fertilizer. A San Francisco PUC water treatment plant loaned NASA some tanks and wastewater to experiment.

"We have flue gas, gas that's rich in CO2 that we can feed to the algae and we have saltwater in these tanks to test our ideas of keeping algae afloat and test the idea that we might be able to kill algae if they escape in sea water," Trent said.

It's no accident Trent comes from NASA's life support division where they figure out ways to keep astronauts in space for a long time.

"How you can recover waste for real long duration from space flight? You can't just take a lot of stuff with you, you have to recycle things, and so there are scientists working on that problem right now -- how do you recycle waste and turn it back into food and oxygen and things that the astronauts need for their trip?" NASA OMEGA project manager Stephan Ord said.

The next step is for another team of scientists and engineers to take over where OMEGA leaves off, and figure out if making big enough offshore algae farms is truly possible.

Original post available here.

Algaedyne plants a future for renewable fuels

Driving around Kauai, Hawaii, several years ago, Toby Kinkaid spotted a series of smokestacks from a coal-fired electric plant and began wondering what could be done “with all that carbon.”

The Wisconsin-based entrepreneur had already established a national reputation as a solar developer by operating Solardyne.com and Solarquote.com as well as inventing two solar-related products that have been tested at Sandia National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.

The idea that started in Kauai led him to study algae and to launch a company with a biomass investor and a St. Paul-based construction company. The result, the Algaedyne Corp., is one of Minnesota’s first efforts in the burgeoning field of algae.

Although still in the developmental phase, the startup has attracted Preston, Minn.-based biofuels investor Thomas Byrne of Earth Renewable Investments LLC. Byrne also helped found the Algae Biomass Organization (ABO), a national group promoting algae companies.

The Harris Cos., a mechanical construction and engineering business, is the other partner in Algaedyne. Chief engineer Nick Rosenberry said his company’s interest is “to understand algae from the ground up.”

“We think algae has a place in our energy future, and we want to be able to know how to build plants for the industry,” Rosenberry says.

Harris has built eight 2,000-liter bioreactors, six of which were sold to New Jersey-based Garden State Ethanol for a pilot project using municipal waste to grow algae. Two units also reside at St. Cloud State University, where students and professors in the biology department use them in their research.

Garden State Ethanol found Algaedyne and decided to try the bioreactors in the pilot project. Otherwise, Byrne said, the Preston-based company does not actively court sales.

“We haven’t really done anything to sell the bioreactors,” Byrne said. “It’s really still in the experimental stage. We’re not guaranteeing it can do anything just yet.”

Besides investments from the three partners, Algaedyne has received funding from the Southern Minnesota Initiatives Foundation and Minn-Cal Investments LLC, according to its website.

Although growing algae to produce fuel may be the ultimate goal of Byrne and his partners, that’s not where the money is right now in the industry. Byrne said algae producers can make money in pharmaceuticals and in the aquaculture industry as a potential replacement for fish feedstock.

For now, he’s raising money for Algaedyne with an aim to run a larger demonstration project that would lead to a commercial operation — “without spending millions of dollars.”

That kind of money is being spent by the algae industry’s bigger startups in California, Arizona and Florida. Those companies, along with Algaedyne, are perfecting ways to grow algae just like any agricultural crop.

Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the Algae Biomass Organization, said ABO has grown from a handful of organizations to more than 200 companies. A recent ABO survey showed 70 percent of its members think algae biofuels will be commercially available and competitive with fossil fuels by 2020 — and half say algae will cost $3 per gallon or less by then.

“Innovative companies such as Algaedyne are part of a dynamic, 50-state job creation engine that will be tapping into markets for fuel, agricultural products, renewable chemicals — the list goes on,” said Rosenthal in a prepared statement.

Still, it’s a young market. In a column headlined “What’s the Worst Green Tech to be in?” Green Tech Media’s Michael Kanellos wrote last year that separating algae from water “has been an unsolved technical issue since the late ’70s.” Distribution will likely be expensive, too, he wrote, citing former Chevron executive Don Paul’s estimate that a new fuel requires $3 billion and 15 years to get to the market.

So what does algae production look like now? In general, algae companies take one of two approaches involving large, open ponds or enclosed bioreactors, the latter of which is Algaedyne’s method.

One of the key ingredients for algae is carbon dioxide, which helps it flourish. That drew the interest of Kinkaid, who works in the renewable sector because of a passion for reducing global warming. He began experimenting with different sizes of bioreactors to determine which would grow algae the fastest.

His work began with a small 10-gallon bioreactor. Then he experimented with a 500-gallon tank, the size that was sold to Garden State Ethanol. The algae are in water supplemented with specific nutrients and carbon dioxide to assist their growth, he said.

A light-emitting diode (LED) in the bioreactor emits red and blue wavelengths in a process Kinkaid calls “controlled photosynthesis.” Different algae species are deployed for different applications including biofuels and nutraceuticals, he said.

One of Kinkaid’s challenges was to figure out how to avoid inhibiting the growth of the algae below other algae in the controlled environment of a bioreactor. His solution, which he is trying to patent, was light injection technology that moves those red and blue wavelengths into the lower reaches of the tank.

By using the nutrients and the light injection, Kinkaid can harvest half his algae crop every 24 hours. The biofuel is harvested and the remaining biomass — the algae — can be dried and used for livestock feed or pharmaceutical products.

The Algaedyne Corp.’s bio-reactors are being built in the Harris Cos.’ fabrication facility in Zumbrota, Minn. (Submitted photo: Harris Cos.)

Byrne, who earns his living as a consultant to ethanol companies and other renewable energy businesses, has another algae endeavor called Aquaviridis. That company recently signed a deal with Los Angeles-based OriginOil Inc., which developed a technology to extract oil from algae.

Together, the companies say they will build a pilot project this year in the Mexicali Valley in Mexico.

“The algae industry looks a lot like the ethanol industry did in the early years, and I think it has the same potential, maybe even more, as a source of fuel and other products,” Byrne said.

Original post available here.

Sapphire Energy Gets $144 Million To Turn Algae Into Gasoline

Algae [source: VentureBeat]

Sapphire Energy, a company that creates algae-based fuel, just announced a whopping $144 million in funding.

In recent years several startups have emerged to create fuel out of plant material, all hoping to lure people away from gasoline made from crude oil. Solazyme, Algae.tec, and Sapphire Energy all dominate the space, trying to edge out not only each other but oil companies as well.

All three companies covert algae into a petroleum replacement, one that can work with the traditional cars we already have on the road.

Creating green crude, a substance that can be converted into jet fuel, automobile gasoline, and diesel, is a process that has been around for several years. However, Sapphire’s recent investment proves that the technology is still going strong and that we could all very well be driving around on algae-based gas sometime.

Sapphire has gained a lot of traction by signing deals with Continental Airlines and Boeing to test out algae-based jet fuel, and the company provided fuel for an algae powered Toyota Prius.

“It has never been more critical to invest in a long-term energy solution in order to wean us off of foreign oil, improve our nation’s energy security, and provide jobs,” said Cynthia Warner, president of Sapphire Energy in an statement to VentureBeat,

”Due to the significant funding we announced today, as well as government support, Sapphire Energy is on track to commercialize algae-based fuels within this decade.”

Algae and biofuel

Algae and biofuel

Seed company Monsanto was one of the investors in this round and the company has been using Sapphire’s technology for its own genetic modification needs.

Arrowpoint Partners and other private undisclosed investors led the round as well. This $144 million third round brings the green tech company’s total to $300 million.

The funding will be used to expand its Green Crude farm in New Mexico, an algae energy demonstration plant. Sapphire expects the plant to produce 1.5 million gallons of green crude by 2014.

Sapphire Energy was found in 2007 and has been funded by Arch Venture Partners, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Wellcome Trust, Venrock, and Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment.

Original post available here.

New method grows algae sustainably

NASA has devised an innovative method called Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae (OMEGA). It is used to grow algae, clean wastewater, capture carbon dioxide and ultimately generate biofuel without competing with agriculture for water, fertilizer or land.

The system is made up of large flexible plastic tubes called photobioreactors. They float in seawater and contain freshwater algae growing in wastewater.

Among the fastest growing plants on Earth, the algae use energy from the sun, carbon dioxide and nutrients from the wastewater to produce biomass that can be turned into biofuels and other valuable products such as fertilizer and animal food. In the process, the algae clean the wastewater by removing nutrients that otherwise would contribute to forming marine deadzone.

Offshore membrane enclosures for growing algae. (Picture: NASA)

With this project, NASA intends to investigate the technical feasibility of a unique floating algae cultivation system and set the way for commercial uses. Research by scientists and engineers has shown that OMEGA is an effective way to grow microalgae and treat wastewater on a small scale.

NASA is analyzing the OMEGA system as an alternative way to generate aviation fuels. Potential implications of replacing fossil fuels include reducing the release of green house gases, decreasing ocean acidification and enhancing national security.

Reporters are being invited to attend a one-hour guided tour of NASA’s Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae (OMEGA) system this week in San Francisco, where they will see various prototypes of the innovative method.

Original post available here.