DF Cast: Algae Backers’ Beef with DOE

Backers of algae, especially for biofuel production, say while the Department of Energy provides millions for universities to do research through the DOE Biomass Program, commercial enterprises are being left by the wayside. And they say that isn’t fair, and after 60 years of looking at the green microbes, researchers have developed nothing.

In this edition of the Domestic Fuel Cast, we talk with Barry Cohen, the Executive Director at the National Algae Association, about how the commercial side of his industry is getting shut out, and he argues if they had just 10 percent of the money that universities get, we would have a commercialized algae-based biofuel within a year.

It’s a pretty interesting conversation, and you can listen to it here: Domestic Fuel Cast - Algae's Beef with DOE

You can also subscribe to the DomesticFuel Cast here.

Colombians Find Algae with Biodiesel Potential

colombiaflag1Researchers in Colombia have found a couple of strains of freshwater algae that could be good for biodiesel. FIS.com reports that the scientists at the National University of Colombia (UNC) believe Scenedesmus ovalternus and Chlorella vulgaris will produce biodiesel with less impact on the environment.

Luis Miguel Serrano Bermudez, Master in Chemical Engineering at the UNC and one of the authors of the study, explains that neither the bioethanol (made from the fermentation of corn or sugar cane) nor the biodiesel (made from palm oil, soybean or other grains) can respond to the global fuel demand with environmental and economic sustainability.

Colombia has a high abundance of water and light, which is essential for farming microalgae.

The two species of microalgae studied had the highest productivity of fats, with a value that is equal to 4.1 times the productivity of the African palm, which is the current raw material used by the domestic industry for biodiesel.

The researchers found that Chlorella vulgaris has a 25 percent higher fat content compared to Scenedesmus ovalternus, making the process that much cheaper.

Cold-Growing Algae Shows Biodiesel Promise

yellow-greenalgaeA new strain of algae found growing in the snowy Rocky Mountains could provide a promising feedstock for biodiesel. This story in Science Daily says heterococcus sp. DN1, a new variety of yellow-green algae, grows at near freezing temperatures and accumulates large amounts of lipids, working best at high light at the low temps:

Algae that can grow in extreme conditions and accumulate lipids are of great interest to industry. The team found that as H. sp. DN1 produces the highest quantity of lipids when grown undisturbed with high light in low temperatures, it is a potential source of lipids for human nutrition when grown undisturbed, and it has an ideal lipid profile for biofuel production when stressed.

davidnelson“We have isolated and characterized a new cold-tolerant lipid-producing strain of algae from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, US,” said Dr. David Nelson [Department of Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota]. “This may have implications for the commercial production of algal lipids at northern latitudes where the culture of other algal species is limited or impossible.”

New Algae-to-Biofuels Photobioreactor Designed

Alicante1Researchers at a university in Spain believe they have a new photobioreactor that will make it easier to turn algae into biofuels. The University of Alicante announced a patent on the new device:

The Research Group in Polymer Processing and Pyrolysis at the University of Alicante is the team that has designed and developed this device, consisting of a photobioreactor, easily scalable to larger production, which has attracted the interest of both Spanish and foreign firms in the sector of biotechnology.

The director of the research group, Antonio Marcilla Gomis, explained that the novelty of this photobioreactor compared to those existing is that it allows mass production, less cleaning and maintenance operations, better use of CO2 and better light transfer to cultivation…

The design of this novel technology aims to overcome any difficulties or problems that have been presented over the years with the use of other similar cropping systems.

“The subject on the cultivation of microalgae is having a major boom in terms of research in the last fifteen years as an alternative energy to oil”, he said.

Marcilla Gomis did admit that turning algae into fuel is still not on par with the profitable process that petroleum uses. But they’ll keep working on making it comparable, including finding multiple uses for the algae, such as food, pharmaceuticals or cosmetics.

Canada to Fund Algae-to-Biodiesel Project

NRCalgae1A joint project between the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and industry partners could result in technology to grow algae to be made into several items, including biodiesel, in the heart of the Canadian petroleum industry: oil sands facilities.

The Algal Carbon Conversion Pilot Project, a partnership among the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), Canadian Natural Resources Limited (Canadian Natural) and Pond Biofuels, will result in the construction of a unique, $19 million facility in Alberta.

“This discovery has tremendous potential to benefit our environment and our economy, and further establish Canada as a leader in managing CO2 emissions,” said the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology). “What the results of this project could mean for the future of the oil sands and Canadian businesses makes this a significant day for Canada.”

In the coming months, a demonstration-scale algal biorefinery will be established at Canadian Natural’s Primrose South oil sands site, near Bonnyville, Alberta. This facility will recycle industrial emissions from their oil sands facility by using carbon dioxide to grow algal biomass, which will undergo further processing into products, such as biofuels, livestock feed and fertilizer.

Officials say the project will lessen the oil industry’s carbon footprint, while marking this unique partnership between fossil fuels and renewable industries.

SGI Enters Into Algae Partnership with ExxonMobil

Synthetic Genomics (SGI), has entered into a new co-funded research agreement with ExxonMobil to develop algae biofuels. The new agreement is a science research program that focuses on developing algal strains with significantly improved production characteristics by employing synthetic genomic science and technology. Financial details of the agreement were not disclosed.

Plant Genomics SGI“We look forward to working with ExxonMobil to undertake this in-depth focus on the basic science research to better understand and enhance algae,” said J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., SGI’s founder and chief executive officer.  “The new agreement gives us an opportunity to really focus on improving algal strains using our core synthetic biology technologies to develop biofuels.”

In June 2009, SGI and ExxonMobil announced a research and development alliance focused on naturally occurring and conventionally modified algae strains. According to a news release, during the past four years, the companies have gained considerable knowledge about the challenges in developing economical and scalable algae biofuels. SGI also made significant strides in understanding algae genetics, growth characteristics, and enhancements to algae to improve algal biomass and lipid productivities.

According to SGI, this new agreement places greater emphasis on basic scientific research to develop strains which reproduce quickly, produce a high proportion of lipids and effectively withstand environmental and operational conditions. The company currently has two facilities – a smaller scale research greenhouse and laboratory near the SGI campus in La Jolla, CA, and a larger-scale development and commercial production facility with closed photobioreactors, open ponds and product recovery unit operations in Imperial Valley, CA.

U of Wyoming Inks Deal to Get Into Algae Biz

plantomics1The University of Wyoming has signed a deal that gets it into the algal biomass industry. The school agreed to give PlanktOMICS Algae Bioservices, run by a pair of university researchers, space and support to research how to develop patent-pending processes in exchange for a cut of the profits down the road:

PlanktOMICS principal partners Stephen Herbert, a UW professor of plant sciences, and Levi Lowder, a UW doctoral candidate in molecular and cellular life sciences, will focus on serving small companies that need to solve problems relative to their algae needs.

PlanktOMICS provides advanced phenotype analysis (testing biological traits) and screening services, custom algal vector design and construction, algal transformation and gene-expression analysis, according to its website.

“We’re here to solve problems for other companies that want to produce algae at large scales,” says Herbert, who serves as the company’s CEO. “We see our role as building up research capacity of these small companies that don’t have enough capacity for research.”

“Our services are tailored to companies that want to outsource their biological studies or biological research,” adds Lowder, who is PlanktOMICS’ chief technology officer. “We don’t really produce the end products. We do the biology. You have to know how to grow algae. That’s where we come in, to figure out how to farm algae on a large scale (for other companies).”

PlanktOMICS is working on technologies to control unwanted algae and other microbes in algae ponds, just like corn and soybean farmers control weeds, as well as technology to lower the cost of harvesting of algal biomass, among others. Last year, Lowder’s team won the university’s John P. Ellbogen $30K Entrepreneurship Competition, getting $12,500 and one year of free rent to further develop the company at the Wyoming Technology Business Center (WTBC), a business incubator at the school. Herbert and Lowder say they already have two clients lined up, one in the algal nutritional supplement business for more than 30 years. The developments could ultimately lead to algae-biodiesel projects.

Heliae Reveals Volaris – Algae Production Platform

Heliae has revealed its latest microalgae production platform, Volaris, the result of five years of research and development. The technology was designed to produce high purity microalgae at competitive prices. According to the company, Volaris will enable large-scale production for diverse markets and provide a natural, sustainable and consistent supply of alage-based products to meet worldwide demand.

“Good science takes time,” said Dan Simon, Heliae’s president and CEO. “We’ve developed a technology platform that finally delivers on what the industry has been promising for more than a decade. With Volaris technology, we’re now able to offer algae solutions for a range of markets, which have not been possible with existing technology. This technology will unlock the industry.”

volaris alage platfrom from HeliaeVolaris combines the best of existing algae production pathways, utilizing both sunlight and waste carbon feedstocks to optimize facility economics according to Lee Tonkovich, Heliae’s vice president of research and development. “The algae industry has been hindered by the limits of conventional technology. Phototrophy and heterotrophy, both have their weaknesses – namely contamination and low growth rates in phototrophy and extremely high capital and operating expenses in heterotrophy.”

Tonkovich continued, “We’ve developed a hybrid mixotrophic pathway which drives down capital costs, reduces contamination, and increases productivity to dramatically improve the economics of algae production. The productivity gains Volaris provides will reduce much of the land required for a commercial facility.”

Volaris will play an important role in Heliae’s new 20-acre commercial facility currently under construction in Gilbert, Ariz., slated to open in late Q3 of 2013.

“Volaris is the next generation in algae growth technology,” added Adrian Galvez, vice president of operations for Heliae. “With it, we can drop the dollar per kilogram cost to a point that makes algae immediately attractive. The flexibility we have in this technology allows us to control output traits and deliver exactly what a customer needs from our algae. This increased product optionality will open new markets for algae.”

DOE Announces $18M to Advance Drop-In Biofuels

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced $18 million in investments for four pilot-scale biorefineries that will test renewable biofuels that will meet military specifications for jet fuel, shipboard diesel, cars and trucks. These projects build on the Obama Administration’s broader efforts to advance biofuels technologies to continue to bring down costs, improve performance and identify effective, non-food feedstocks and processing techniques.

Logos for DOE StoryThe projects selected for negotiation are: Frontline Bioenergy LLC (up to $4.2 million based in Ames, Iowa); Cobalt Technologies (up to $2.5 million based in Mountain View, California); Mercurius Biorefining, Inc. (up to $4.6 million based in Ferndale, Washington) and BioProcess Algae (up to $6.4 million based in Shenandoah, Iowa).

“Advanced biofuels are an important part of President Obama’s all-of-the-above strategy to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, improve our energy security and protect our air and water,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “The innovative biorefinery projects announced today mark an important step toward producing fuels for our American military and the civil aviation industry from renewable resources found right here in the United States.”

Chu says domestic oil and gas production has increased each year the President has been in office. Simultaneously the administration is taking additional steps to reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil. As part of this effort, the Department is helping to speed the development of hydrocarbon-based biofuels that are more compatible with today’s infrastructure and engines, including heavy vehicles and other applications. According to the Energy Department’s Billion Ton Study, advanced biofuels have the potential to displace approximately one-third of the nation’s current transportation petroleum use.

The pilot-scale biorefinery projects selected today will use a variety of non-food biomass feedstocks, waste-based materials, and algae in innovative conversion processes to produce biofuels that meet military specifications for jet fuel and diesel. The projects will demonstrate technologies to cost-effectively convert biomass into advanced drop-in biofuels and assist these organizations to scale up the processes to commercial levels. Recipients are required to contribute a minimum of 50 percent matching funds for these projects.

BioProcess Algae Awarded $6.4M Grant

BioProcess Algae has been selected to receive a grant of up to $6.4 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), as part of an innovative pilot-scale biorefinery Bioprocess Algae's Growth Systemproject related to production of hydrocarbon fuels meeting military specification. The project will use renewable carbon dioxide, lignocellulosic sugars and waste heat through BioProcess Algae’s Grower Harvester(TM) technology platform, co-located with the Green Plains Renewable Energy’s ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa.

“BioProcess Algae was the only algae platform chosen to be a part of this project by the DOE,” said Todd Becker, President and CEO of Green Plains. “This project will link our commercial scale platform for growing and harvesting algal biomass with technology partners for conversion into advanced biofuels. While this is a project for the development of drop-in biofuels, we continue to focus our technology for growing and harvesting algae for feed, food or fuel.”

The project will demonstrate technologies to cost-effectively convert biomass into advanced drop-in biofuels and the recipient is required to contribute a minimum of 50 percent matching funds for the project.

Tim Burns, President and CEO of BioProcess Algae added, “We believe our Grower Harvester platform will be vital in the development of this project with the DOE. For this project, we will integrate low-cost autotrophic algal production, accelerated lipid production, and lipid conversion in an effort to develop a cost-effective advanced biofuel for military needs. This development is consistent with our current plans to build the next phase of Grower Harvester reactors in Shenandoah.”

Research Turns Swine Manure into Biocrude Products

schideman1Researchers at the University of Illinois have come up with a way to turn swine manure into a biocrude oil, as well as growing algae biomass, capturing carbon, purifying wastewater and recycling nutrients. This news release from the school says Yuanhui Zhang and Lance Schideman, both professors in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, have combined their years of research for the innovative development.

“We first convert swine manure into crude oil in a hydrothermal liquefaction reactor,” Schideman said. “There is a very strong wastewater that comes off that process. It contains nutrients that can be used to grow algae that simultaneously clean the water. Lately, we’ve added low-cost, bioregenerable adsorbents into the system that allow us to grow additional bacterial biomass and further improve effluent water quality.

“Our recent research, a combination of experimental work and some computer modeling, has shown that we can reuse the nutrients multiple times and thus amplify biofuel production from waste feedstocks,” he explained. “If we start with a particular waste stream that has one ton of volatile solids in it, we might be able to produce three, five or even ten tons of algal and bacterial biomass. This new biomass is then recycled back into the biofuel production process,” he continued. “It can also clean the water with the goal of making it suitable for environmental discharge or reuse in some other application. So we get more bioenergy and more clean water resources – both good things in the long run.”

The biocrude oil has higher oxygen and higher nitrogen content than traditional petroleum, but lower sulfur content. The researchers see the process helping bridge the gap between the smaller refineries and petroleum’s requirements of having refineries that process hundreds of thousands of barrels of material each day.

The biocrude oil is being tested as an asphaltic binder in a piece of pavement leading to Six Flags St. Louis.

How to Recover from Algal Pond Crashes

Sandia National Laboratory has developed several complementary technologies to help the algae industry in detecting and recovering from pond crashes, and is Algal Pond Photomaking use of the AzCATI test-bed facility to collect data and apply its technologies. The research focuses on monitoring and diagnosing algal pond health and draws upon Sandia’s longstanding expertise in microfluidics technology, its strong bioscience research program and significant internal investments.

According to researchers, because of the way algae is grown and produced in most algal ponds, they are prone to attack by fungi, rotifers, viruses or other predators. Consequently, algal pond collapse is a critical issue that companies must solve to produce algal biofuels cost-effectively. The issue was identified as a key component in the Department of Energy’s National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap.

To address the problem, Sandia is addressing the algal pond crash issue in three complementary ways:

  • Developing a real-time monitoring tool for algal ponds that can detect indications of a problem days in advance of a crash;
  • Successfully applying pathogen detection and characterization technologies honed through the lab’s Rapid Threat Organism Recognition (RapTOR) work; and
  • Employing its innovative SpinDx diagnostic device to dig deeper into problems after they’ve occurred and help to identify specific biological agents responsible for crashes.

Sandia’s Tom Reichardt, a researcher who works in the lab’s remote sensing unit, led development of an online algal reflectance monitor through an internally funded project. The instruments are typically set up alongside the algal pond, continuously monitoring, analyzing the algae’s concentration levels, examining its photosynthesis and performing other diagnostics.

“In real-time, it will tell you if things are going well with the growth of your algae or whether it’s beginning to show signs of trouble,” said Reichardt.  However, he cautioned, while this real-time monitoring will warn pond operators when the ponds have been attacked, it may not be able to identify the attacker. He notes that quick identification of organisms in ponds is the key to mitigation.

Now that the core principles of pathogen detection and characterization technologies for pond crash forensics have been successfully proven, the next step for the team will be to conduct more robust demonstrations. The research team will be continuing their work as part of the Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3) led by Arizona State University (ASU), the first national algae testbed. The Sandia team will apply the technologies, collect more data and seek additional collaborations.

Green Tea Could Lead to More Green Biodiesel

UCDavisalgaeResearchers have found that some of the compounds in green tea could lead to more biodiesel production. Scientists at the University of California, Davis found several compounds, including common antioxidants such as epigallocatechin gallate, found in green tea, and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), a food preservative, boosted the oil production by green microscopic algae:

“They can live in saltwater, they take sunlight and carbon dioxide as a building block, and make these long chains of oil that can be converted to biodiesel,” said Annaliese Franz, assistant professor of chemistry and an author of the paper.

Franz, graduate students Megan Danielewicz, Diana Wong and Lisa Anderson, and undergraduate student Jordan Boothe screened 83 compounds for their effects on growth and oil production in four strains of microalgae. They identified several that could boost oil production by up to 85 percent, without decreasing growth.

The researchers grew the cultures in culture volumes up to about a pint in size but figure that some of the compounds could be cost-effective when moved up to 12,000-gallon ponds. Plus, the leftover algae mass after the oil is removed still would make a good animal feed.

Algae.Tec Using Shipping Containers to Grow Algae

Algaetecbioreactor1When it comes to alternatives to some of the more conventional sources of oils for biofuels, many companies are looking to go green. And some, such as the folks at Algae.Tec, are looking to green shipping containers to grow a literal green feedstock.

“What we wanted was a significant bulk outcome, in other words fuels and possibly food, producing the algae for cents on the liter, where many of the pond solutions [cost] dollars per liter to make it work,” explains Roger Stroud, the Executive Chairman of the Australia-based company. He says Algae.Tec’s enclosed photo-bioreactor contained in 40-foot shipping containers is a way to produce the green pond scum for those pennies of what it costs in open-air ponds. And they’re looking at producing biodiesel, jet fuels, and even food sources from the algae grown. But Stroud says they are still working on the commercialization process with demonstration projects just south of Sydney, as well as research and development in Atlanta, Georgia. “We’re confident in the outcome.”

rogerstroud1So why is Stroud so confident their system will be successful? Well, besides the testing and work they’ve done, he’s Australian, and that means he’s used to having to do big things against sometimes great odds. “Although [Australia] is a large continent, we’ve got [a small population]. So, we tend to be on the outside looking in, where in the U.S., you tend to be on the inside looking out,” and Australians have to look more to the world economy. That’s why Algae.Tec has worked vigorously to network globally. Projects pending in Brazil and Texas, as well as one in New South Wales, point to that global reach. Plus, he’s encouraged by the Americans’ commitment to algae and biofuels. It all comes down to the Australian, and maybe the algae industry’s, way of making the best of the opportunity that comes your way.

“We’re focused on our task, and we believe we can achieve a profitable outcome, given time.”

Listen to Joanna’s interview with Roger here: Interview with Roger Stroud, Algae.Tec

OriginOil Claims Solution for Fracking Water Problem

Originoil1The folks at OriginOil say they have the solution for the problem of what to do with all of the wastewater leftover from hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking,” the process used to free petroleum and other non-renewable fuels from the ground.

Riggs Eckelberry is the CEO of OriginOil, a company dedicated to extracting oil from algae for a variety of uses, including making that oil into renewable fuel. In an interview with Joanna, he said they’ve developed a chemical-free, low-energy process that uses electronic pulses to separate the algae from the water, and that same technique works well getting petroleum out of the fracking water.

“That water when you are fracking an oil well is full of petroleum,” he explained. “We found our process, independent of algae, does a great job of removing up to 98 percent of those particulates … easy to purify to drinking water or groundwater standards.” He added the fracking industry needs to start treating its water or become impaired, calling it of national strategic importance.

Riggs-Eckelberry-Headshot1Riggs went on to say that this process gives the oil industry a chance to be on a more environmentally friendly path, preserving that income flow for them and saving them money. It costs 21-26 cents per gallon to treat the dirty water. His company’s process could get that down to 7-8 cents per gallon, even below the 11-cents-per-gallon rate just to haul the untreated water away. “At that point, why would you do anything else?”

He said the application could work in other contaminated water situations, such as mining tailings and wastewater.

Listen to Joanna’s interview with Riggs here: Interview with Riggs Eckelberry, CEO of OriginOil