July 27, 2009

Aquaflow and Solray, Two New Zealand Algae Biofuel Companies, Partner Up

New Zealand algae-to-biofuel hopefuls Aquaflow Bionomics and Solray Energy have teamed up to see if they can overcome the challenges that have kept algal biofuels from commercial production to date.

The partnership announced Thursday will combine Aquaflow's methods of harvesting algae grown from wastewater streams and Solray's process of turning that algae into fuel, the companies said.

Aquaflow's system of growing algae in open ponds using the effluent in wastewater from sources like sewage plants, food processing facilities and dairy farms could help lower costs.

That's because algae helps clean wastewater, a service companies can be expected to pay for. Seattle startup Blue Marble Energy has a plan to grow algae to treat wastewater and then turn the algae into industrial chemicals, for example (see Green Light post).

A similar concept is using the carbon emissions from power plants or factories to grow algae – the plan of, among others, the recently disbanded algae-to-biofuel pioneer GreenFuel Technologies, which is now seeking a buyer of its intellectual property (see Green Light post).

GreenFuel's demise has brought up a key challenge facing would-be algae biofuel makers, however – how to cut the costs of actually getting the algae harvested and turned into fuel (see Green Light post and Algae Biodiesel: It's $33 a Gallon).

Using open ponds, rather than enclosed "bioreactors" as GreenFuel had done, could be more cost effective, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Aquatic Species Program, one of the earliest research efforts into algae biofuels that ended in 1998.

On the other hand, proponents of closed systems for growing algae say they've found ways to surmount the challenges noted in that report (see Can Solix Cut the Cost of Making Algae by 90%?).

Startup Algenol says it's gotten around the harvesting challenge with a process that allows for algae-made ethanol to be extracted without killing the algae. It's building a test plant at a Dow Chemicals site in Texas (see Green Light post).

Despite the challenges – or perhaps because of them – money continues to pour into algae-to-biofuel research and commercialization efforts.

Solazyme last month raised $57 million to push commercialization of its unusual process of growing algae in the dark and feeding it industrial and biomass byproducts (see Solazyme Snags $57M to Make Algal Oil for Cars and Salad).

Oil giant Exxon made a big splash earlier this month when it promised $300 million in a algae biofuel research partnership with J. Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics, as well as $300 more in in-house research (see Green Light post).

As for Aquaflow, it already has a relationship with Honeywell company UOP to work on bio jet fuel, making it one of many algae biofuel developers working with aviation industry partners, such as Sapphire Energy, Solazyme, Inventure Chemical, PetroSun and Chevron (see Biofuel Powers Air New Zealand Test Flight).

In March 2008, Aquaflow said it was successfully harvesting algae and planned to commission a prototype biorefinery to turn the algae into fuel.

Thursday's announcement didn't make clear if Aquaflow was continuing its own biorefinery work or switching efforts to Solray's system.

Solray says it has come up with a way to convert all of the algae – not just the fatty acids that make up a portion of it – into an "Algae Crude" oil that can be processed into transportation fuel.

With several years of testing the process in a prototype plant, Solray – a joint venture of New Zealand companies Solvent Rescue, which reconstitutes used solvents, and Rayners, which makes high-pressure vessels and HVAC equipment – says it commissioned a larger-scale plant in July 2008, according to its Web site.

Both Aquaflow and Solray have said they are seeking investment.

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