How algae could change your world (or at least your car)

Jul 13, 2011 By Jim Motavalli

Will we soon be fueling our cars, applying cosmetics and eating food - all made from algae? That's the rather science-fiction-y premise of the new cluster of companies (many of them based in San Diego, home of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology) that are growing strains of algae far more useful than that residue that forms on your swimming pool.

Steve Mayfield, the University of California at San Diego professor who runs the center, told me that algae production is finally reaching the commercial scale. He was a founder of the locally based Sapphire Energy, which is building a large in New Mexico that will start pumping from algae in the summer of 2013. "This is first-generation technology, a Model A," he said. "The technology will only get more efficient as it ramps up."

Sapphire raised $100 million through investors that included Bill Gates and the Rockefeller-connected Venrock. Its algae technology was hailed by the Wall Street Journal as the "next big thing" back in March. People are getting excited. The New Mexico project also received more than $104 million in federal funding, from the Departments of Energy and Agriculture.

According to Jason Pyle, Sapphire's CEO, the New Mexico algae ponds will be built on unproductive salt-saturated former . "The land grew cotton 15 years ago, but the growing salt content gradually made that impossible." Pyle said that "green crude oil" from algae looks very similar to petroleum, and is low in sulfur and heavy metals. He thinks that algae can replace up to 10 percent of our current transportation needs. The company's goal is to produce fuel for $70 to $80 a barrel, which is of course cheaper than petroleum oil right now.

"By 2020, we could see heavy military usage of our products," he said. We will probably see in buses and trains before it's in passenger cars.

Mayfield likes the idea of producing algae on dried-up parts of the Salton Sea, an artificial and highly toxic body of water in California's economically depressed Imperial Valley. As it evaporates, it makes the toxins (including ) airborne and dangerous. Algae production ponds could cover that waste and keep it contained. "We're talking about hundreds of thousands of acres," Mayfield said. "It's an ideal place to grow algae fuel, as much as 600 million gallons per year, and it could employ thousands in a place with 27 percent unemployment.

State and federal regulations that "protect" the toxic Salton Sea could kill that idea, though. Algae can be grown in open ponds, where it is fed fertilizer and carefully monitored. Or it can be cultivated indoors in fermentation tanks using synthetic biology. That's the approach taken by Solazyme, one of the industry leaders.

According to Andrew Chung, a principal at Lightspeed Venture Partners, one of Solazyme's investors, "What's produced is a renewable crude oil that can be made into a wide variety of products, from animal feed and cosmo-ceuticals to fuel." Food, too - Chung has eaten brownies made from algae. Chung, interviewed at a Wharton School Alumni Forum in San Francisco, contends Solazyme's algae approach works best, because it can use commercially available fermentation tanks - no re-inventing of the wheel is necessary. And that's another major advantage of algae when it's made into fuels that are chemically indistinguishable from gasoline and diesel: Unlike ethanol (which is corrosive), it can be pumped through our existing network of 160,000 gas stations.

Solazyme, which is partnered with Chevron and the U.S. Navy, isn't just talking about algae fuel. The company, which went public last month, is already producing it for the aviation industry and for naval ships. It can only expand from there. "The market is in the hundreds of billions of gallons," Chung said.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Sapphire CEO Jason Pyle talks about algae production for use as fuel

Kent Bio Energy advances the concept of producing algae from waste sources such as raw leachate from landfills and cow manure sourced from intensive animal agriculture factories (which usually pay to make the stuff go away). "We can put any waste into algae ponds and it will eat the effluent," says Barry Toyonaga, Kent's chief business officer. "Pollution is huge."

Kent has gotten EPA grants for waste-based algae pilot plants, but it hasn't commercialized that technology yet. It's a great idea, with the only caveat that it's not easy to pull off on a large scale.

What's not to like about algae fuel? It's sustainable, domestically produced, and it can use our current infrastructure. The biggest challenges for algae, said Bernard David, a partner at Energy Management International, are coming up with a process that works the same way every time, and is cost-effective.

At Solazyme, I saw an agitating platform covered with bright green algae samples, part of ongoing experiments. There are millions of different species of algae, and they all have unique properties with advantages and disadvantages. Scientists can perhaps be forgiven for not finalizing the fuel. is alive, after all, and not always predictable.

Explore further: Going nuts? Turkey looks to pistachios to heat new eco-city

5 /5 (2 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

US military to make jet fuel from algae

Feb 16, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- If military researchers in the US are right, jet fuel produced from algae may soon be available for about the same price as ordinary jet fuels.

Algae biodiesel production has to be three times cheaper

Oct 01, 2010

The cost of producing biodiesel from algae is now three and a half times more than producing it from oil, and twice as much as producing fuel from rapeseed. Investments in biotechnology would however make it feasible for ...

Algae-Based Biofuel From Fish

Sep 01, 2009

Right now, when biofuel is produced using algae, cultures are grown and then processed into fuel. But the process is expensive and difficult. Now a company in Texas, LiveFuels, Inc., hopes that it will be ...

Beaming solar energy to algae

May 04, 2009

Flasks bubble with red- and green-colored concoctions. Across the building, an engineer fiddles with glass rods and flickering fluorescent lights.

EADS to unveil algae-powered aircraft

Jun 04, 2010

European aerospace giant EADS is poised to unveil a "hybrid" aircraft which runs on algae fuel, a world first, its technical director said on Friday.

Recommended for you

Obama launches measures to support solar energy in US

Apr 17, 2014

The White House Thursday announced a series of measures aimed at increasing solar energy production in the United States, particularly by encouraging the installation of solar panels in public spaces.

Tailored approach key to cookstove uptake

Apr 17, 2014

Worldwide, programs aiming to give safe, efficient cooking stoves to people in developing countries haven't had complete success—and local research has looked into why.

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Dug
1 / 5 (1) Jul 13, 2011
What a crock. "The company, which went public last month, is already producing it for the aviation industry and for naval ships." That would be 'producing it experimentally' at $800/gal. Quite a way to go from there - before it's economically feasible. The article also doesn't say that the algae fuels are dependent on peak petroleum - natural gas for nitrogen fertilizers and peak phosphate fertilizers that are estimated to be gone in 50-100 years - conservatively. Algae as a primary energy commercial producer is a non-starter from a mass balance analysis standpoint according to MIT and U. of Kansas mass balance analysis studies.

"The company's goal is to produce fuel for $70 to $80 a barrel, which is of course cheaper than petroleum oil right now." Only the mentally challenged don't remember that crude oil was less than $11/barrel as recently as 1998 after being over $100 a barrel in the 70s. It isn't the market price of crude you compete with - it's the production costs.
CapitalismPrevails
1 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2011
I thought algae would have 0% carbon impact. They absorb carbon and make oil, then the oil is burned to release the carbon into the air.

More news stories

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...

A homemade solar lamp for developing countries

(Phys.org) —The solar lamp developed by the start-up LEDsafari is a more effective, safer, and less expensive form of illumination than the traditional oil lamp currently used by more than one billion people ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...