August 20, 2009

A New, More CO2-Absorbent Algae Strain?


Aurora Biofuels says it has developed a more voracious CO2-gobbling strain of algae, which produces an oil that can be converted into biofuel.

A California start-up, Aurora Biofuels, says it has cultivated algae that doubles production of biodiesel by absorbing more than twice as much carbon dioxide as conventional strains.

According to Robert Walsh, the chief executive of the company, Aurora’s breakthrough was to develop algae mutations that can ingest carbon dioxide regardless of the intensity of sunlight.

“Algae have a built-in mechanism to be effective at low light and as it gets brighter during the day their uptake of carbon dioxide levels off,” said Mr. Walsh. “We’ve been able to go in and alter strains by natural mutation to cause the algae to deal with light across the whole spectrum. The algae continue to uptake CO2 through brighter light and are more productive.”

He said Aurora has built a pilot facility “between a 7-Eleven and the beach” near Melbourne, Fla., and that for the past several months the new algae strains have been producing a gallon of biodiesel a day in an Olympic pool-sized pond.

An algae-derived substitute for gasoline is the great green hope of the nascent biofuels industry. Aurora is one of dozens of start-ups vying to bring an algae-based product to market that will be competitive with petroleum but does not take farmland out of food production, an issue that has plagued the corn ethanol industry.

But significant hurdles remain — including finding ways to profitably extract and process the oil from the algae.

Like some of its competitors, Aurora will offer power plants and other carbon emitters the opportunity to sequester their emissions by feeding carbon dioxide into ponds to stimulate the growth of algae.

Christoph Benning, a Michigan State University professor of biochemistry whose work involves algae, serves on Aurora’s scientific advisory board. He said the data Aurora has shown him confirms the company’s claims.

“They’ve proven that their proprietary strain can increase carbon sequestration and the ability of algae to utilize CO2 and grow higher biomass,” said Mr. Benning, who is compensated for his work on the Aurora advisory board.

Mr. Walsh said the challenge for Aurora is to commercialize its scientific advance. “We’ve proven we can do it at Olympic-pool size — can we do it at 50 acres? Can we maintain the costs at scale?” he said.

The company plans to have a demonstration plant capable of producing 1,000 gallons of fuel a day in operation by the second quarter of 2010. A full-scale production facility is to follow in 2011.

Aurora has raised $25 million from investors that include Oak Investment Partners, Noventi Ventures and Gabriel Venture Partners.

Mr. Walsh said that financing will be sufficient to see Aurora through the construction of the demonstration plant.

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