April 10, 2008

Aquaflow achieves success harvesting wild algae

By Kris Bevill

There is a new biofuel model emerging which is quietly being led by New Zealand’s Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation. The company has set a goal to become the world’s first company to economically produce biofuel from wild algae. Headquartered in Blenheim, New Zealand, Aquaflow’s goal could become reality very soon.

“We have now achieved commercial-scale continuous harvesting of tons of wild algae,” said company chairman Barrie Leay. The next step for Aquaflow is to begin commercial-scale production of biocrude in a newly built biorefinery, which will serve as the production facility. Leay said they have already made their first machine run and he expects they will begin producing algae-based biocrude on a commercial scale in the next few months.

Leay told Ethanol Producer Magazine the conventional model the oil and coal industry uses is the opposite of what will emerge as the new model. “The ethanol and palm oil producers may still adopt a central plant model because scale is important to their economics, but it may not be the most effective for maximizing energy balance and efficiency,” he said. Because New Zealand doesn’t offer subsidies for the energy industry, Leay said energy balance and efficiency are always top priorities for the country’s energy companies.

“There is a major paradigm shift taking place,” said Leay. “The new model is ‘distributed’ production, which is identical to the shift from the huge IBM mainframes of 30 years ago to today’s laptops and Blackberries.”

Aquaflow’s commercial-scale harvesting is taking place at the Marlborough oxidation ponds, which cover 100 acres and produces several tons of algae daily. Leay said the onsite biorefinery is appropriately sized to handle that amount of algae. Aquaflow has investigated other possible harvest areas, including 1,000 acre oxidation ponds in the United States, which would require adequately-sized biorefineries to be constructed near the harvest area.

A major by-product of Aquaflow’s algae-to-biofuel process is clean water, which Leay said can be used for irrigation, industrial washing and cooling, some treatment processes, or it can be a potential source of drinking water as well.

In addition to algae production, the company has also researched feedlots, food processing plants and dairy farms as other possible sources of organic material for feedstock. Aquaflow is also developing a usable jet fuel derived from algae. Leay said the potential is “very significant” and his company is conducting serious investigative work. Boeing Co. has been involved with Aquaflow to develop the product.

Leay said another benefit to algae-based biofuel is the ability to use it within current infrastructures. He predicts algae-based fuel will be used as a blender fuel for many years, until production levels increase and fossil fuel production declines.

In the United States, PetroSun Inc. has begun cleanup on the site of its future algae-to-biofuels compound in Rio Hondo, Texas. Company spokesman Jim LeCrone said as of April 1 crews were on location to prepare the former shrimp farm for scientists and other staff to begin work later this month. “It’s been sitting there for awhile, so we [have] a lot of preliminary work to do before we can actually start growing those little green things,” he said.

LeCrone pointed out the irony of converting a shrimp farm to an algae-production facility. Shrimp farmers know about algae because they have to control it when raising shrimp, he said. Now algae is the preferred crop over shrimp, at least on that farm.

LeCrone said he projects the facility will begin producing algal oil in early May. The farm consists of 1,100 acres of ponds and is expected to produce 4.4 million gallons of algal oil and 110 million pounds of biomass annually. “We gotta crawl before we can walk,” he said. “Nobody has done this yet on a commercial basis. When you’re the pioneer things tend to move a little slower until you really get it to the way you want. Don’t expect huge amounts of oil flowing down a pipeline from that plant in the next month or two.”

The processes being used by companies looking to produce fuel from algae on a commercial scale are often highly guarded and LeCrone said it’s no different for his company. However, it’s not a race to be the first to produce in his eyes. “We’re not in any race, we just want to do things right,” he said. “We don’t care who’s out first. If they have better methods and everything and they want to let it out, that’s fine. It’s gonna be good for the whole world.”

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