July 28, 2009

A New Entrant In Algae: Targeted Growth

Cyanobacteria need help.

Cyanobacteria, or blue green algae, are not incredibly oily. Only about 5 percent to 10 percent of their body mass in a natural state consists of lipids, which can be turned into biofuel, according to Margaret McCormick, general manager of the biobased materials unit at Targeted Growth. By contrast, some species of Botryococcus can achieve a lipid content of up to 70 percent to 80 percent after genetic engineering.

Cyanobacteria, though, has definite advantages. One, it grows fast. Two, years of genetic research exists.

"The strains have been sequenced and the genetic tools exist to manipulate their genome," she said.

To that end, Targeted, one of the leaders in genetic research, is trying to boost the oil content. It has already created versions of cyanobacteria with 20 percent to 40 percent of their mass in lipid. Next year, it hopes to show that it can produce this type of algae in large enough quantities to support a pilot manufacturing facility. Ideally, Targeted will be able to show that its algae can produce 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of oil a year per acre and show a pathway to get to 4,000 to 6,000 gallons an acre a year. (UC Berkeley's Henrik Scheller by the way puts the maximum amount of oil that algae can produce at 4,385 gallons per acre. That is high for a fuel crop, but its far lower than some claims in the algae industry.).

The company likely won't make fuel itself. Instead, it would partner with a fuel producer. Targeted could potentially work with companies growing algae through sunlight or fermentation, she said. Targeted is also looking at ways to milk, rather than kill, algae. It all depends on how the algae will get processed downstream.

Targeted has already been working at maximizing camelina for fuel production, an oily plant that grows on marginal lands and is poisonous to humans.

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