October 9, 2009

'Green Revolution' Buds Slowly in Algae

Amid the charts on James Levin's bulletin board with titles like "Photosynthetic Carbon Fixation" there is a diagram that looks just like the others -- until Levin starts to explain it.

Levin is a biologist who researches algae for Kent Bioenergy. After seven years in the pharmaceutical industry, he came to Kent to study viruses that kill bacteria. His office in San Diego has gray-blue carpet, and the lab around the corner contains petri dishes and test tubes.

But when he talks about this chart, he speaks of a different world.

"When you look at the so-called 'green revolution' that they talk about, when the production of corn increased by [an order of] magnitude, essentially it required two things," he said in an interview later.

In a hockey-stick shape, the graph traces corn yield from the United States, beginning in the mid-1800s and going until today. Halfway through its progression, the line goes from flat to upward-sloping. By last year, output of corn from the United States had grown to more than 150 bushels per acre per year -- from less than 30 bushels an acre a year, less than a century before.

"Similar to what occurred in the Green Revolution, where there was advances made both in traditional farming techniques and the adopting of new technology to farming," he said, "biofuels will probably follow a similar path."

Kent Bioenergy is one of more than 200 companies that are hoping one day to go commercial with algae-to-fuel technology. The idea of producing oil from algae for energy is drawing more and more interest, and recently, the eyes -- and money -- of big investors. The federal government is planning on funding at least one center dedicated to "algal/advanced biofuels," and everyone from the U.S. Navy to a documentary film crew has partnered with startups advancing the vision.

But despite the interest, experts say algae oil is not yet competitive.

Michael Melnick, a San Francisco-based venture capitalist who has founded an algae-to-fuel company, says it's because there is a world of difference between finding a workable technology in the lab -- where many companies have already produced tank-ready algae oil -- and growing it successfully and cheaply in the fields.

"Most of the numbers that you hear, I think, are exaggerated," he said, referring to level of production per acre, as well as cost figures, "because I don't think very many people have gotten this to scale."

"Ultimately this is farming that you're talking about," Melnick added. "You need to bring that perspective to bear, and that doesn't come easy to these young biotech companies. … There's all sorts of interesting things that can be done with microbes in terms of genetic engineering or microbiology, but unless you also bring the farming experience to it, you're going to fail out in the field."

At the whim of nature

A hundred miles east of San Diego, a tractor blows up dust in the shape of a miniature cyclone. A brilliant green field faces spotted brown desert across a two-lane highway.

The land in the Imperial Valley grows alfalfa, cotton, hay. It also houses geothermal plants, a sugar factory. In the opposite direction from where a sign for a state prison points, a dirt road leads west from the highway to the Salton Sea, California's largest lake.

Off this washboarded road is where scientists from San Diego hope to take the next step with algae to fuel.

Proponents of algae oil say that the technology will perform significantly better than older generations of biofuels -- that it will produce less greenhouse gas in its lifecycle, that it uses less land, that it can be grown anywhere -- bypassing the concerns about competition with food crops that have come to plague corn ethanol.

Some environmentalists say water availability could be a problem for algae to fuel in the desert, though they say the issue has not been explored in depth. But some algae-to-fuel companies are already looking at using saltwater or wastewater -- from sources like the Salton Sea -- so that they won't be shipping water to the desert.

Yet for all its promise, no algae-to-fuel company has gone commercial.

"Everything changes when you go outside," said Jim Demattia, manager of the facility in the Imperial Valley owned by Melnick's company, Biolight.

Unexpected problems include other algae or microorganisms -- borne by the winds or the birds -- eating or outcompeting the cultivated algae ("equivalents of weeds," Melnick says). Temperature fluctuations could range high. There could be too much sun. "All the variables that farmers are constantly exposed to," Melnick says.

So going from the lab to the field, some strains live and others die. Demattia can brace for some forces -- for example, hold off on adding water when he expects rain -- and adjust for others, such as through tweaking fertilizer amounts. But some things he cannot help.

"Algae's a mystery," Demattia said. "It dies on you, you never know why it died. You just have it die overnight, and you'll come in and no one will know, even the guys who've been doing it for 30 years won't know what killed it. So there's still a lot more to learn."

The field is also where techniques for harvesting, drying and extracting oil from the algae are refined. Cynthia Warner, president of the San Diego-based startup Sapphire Energy, says that these steps are as crucial to cutting costs as selecting the right algae strains.

Leaving the petri dish for the aquafarm

Demattia spends his days between the petri dishes in the refrigerator in a warehouse-like building, a room glowing with green beakers and large vertical liquid-filled tubes, and the beating -- sometimes 120-degree-Fahrenheit -- sun outside, where a few dozen pools circulate water of different shades. In these structures, he is painstakingly scaling the algae up in stages.

Demattia estimates "it must be, like, 95 percent lab people" in the algae-to-fuel industry. "They try and make it sound like it's some biotech thing," he said. "When they build these huge farms, it's not gonna be a bunch of scientists in white coats here. It's gonna be aquafarm guys."

Demattia, who wears a straw hat with a hole in the top, spent his early career in San Diego growing everything from oysters and fish to seahorses, seaweed and octopuses. Algae was a part of the animals' food chains.

He said that the most important techniques for growing algae properly, which will in turn cut costs, will come from experience in the field, as it happened for a neighboring plant that produces algae as a food supplement.

"You see stuff" out in the field, he said. "Sometimes it's just by accident."

Under a microscope, Demattia examines a rotifer -- a tiny, translucent animal -- swimming in a sea of green curls. The green curls are the blue-green algae with which Biolight is working, and Demattia says the rotifers will eat everything but blue-green algae. So they are perfect for pest control.

"We didn't develop the rotifer thing," he said. People have been cultivating algae for food for thousands of years, he said, and "biological control's been around forever."

Learning from the fish

Kent Bioenergy started as a fish farm in the 1970s as Aquatic Systems Inc. Last year, competition from foreign imports narrowed the company's profits, so they shut the fish business down, Levin said.

Levin was brought in three years back to research the question of whether a method the company was developing to kill bacterial disease in fish could be applied to human disease.

Funding for that research ran out and the company changed gears. But Levin's expertise in molecular biology is now being used on algae.

"It seemed that out of everything, it really had the most promise," Levin said regarding the company's decision to go into algae-to-fuel, compared to continuing to work in antibiotics, where "you don't really know if it's going to work."

Kent Bioenergy's forte on the algae front lies in growing them, which it started doing 15 years ago to clean wastewater from the fish, Levin said. Treating the water saved the company money by cutting its need to buy new water. A decade ago Kent also developed a method for harvesting algae, which was necessary to remove the organisms after they ate the waste.

Kent has only been doing research on algae-to-fuel for three years, and Levin acknowledged that the company's research into bacteria-eating viruses will not apply directly and that it has much work to do on the biotech front.

But he said the company's field experience gives it a leg up.

"We can do something that not everybody else can do," he said.

The farm is also located in the Imperial Valley, where aquaculture is common. Another company, SunEco Energy, has also bought a fish farm and says it plans to expand to commercial production for algae to fuel soon, in part using the algae from the fish ponds -- although some outside scientists have questioned the company's claims for production numbers.

For the most part, Kent's background is unique, Melnick said.

From science to a 'new ballgame'

Susan Golden, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego, who is also working for Biolight, worked on the science of blue-green algae for more than 20 years before making the switch from basic science -- "scientists love to discover how things really work" -- to the applied algae research she does for Biolight.

"For a lot of us, it's a real change," Golden said, referring to scientists who focus on blue-green algae in particular. "Instead of focusing on discovering something new, it's making something practical. That's a whole new ballgame."

Warner said that with oil selling for less than bottled water, the players in the game still have a long way to go before they will see their products replace petroleum on the market. She said that Sapphire's existing technology is already competitive, and the challenge is to scale up.

Three weeks ago, Stephen Mayfield, a biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego and a leader in algae-to-fuel research, and colleagues at the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology submitted a grant application to the Department of Energy, which is dedicating $85 million of stimulus money to establishing at least one consortium for algae and other advance biofuels. Mayfield thinks 12 other teams applied.

An algae biomass conference beginning today is expected to draw 800 attendees, according to the Web site of the Algal Biomass Association.

By the end of the year, a capital firm based in San Diego plans to launch a prize competition, based on the X Prize, that will award $10 million to whoever produces the most finished diesel from algae per acre of land by 2013 for a cost of under $3 per gallon, with a minimum of 3,000 gallons, said Matt Peak, director of technology ventures at Prize Capital.

"I think it'll be slow in coming," said venture capitalist Melnick, regarding the bridging of algae science with farming. "But I expect to see a greater appreciation of that over the next two, three years."

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