Transforming Marine Algae into a Biofuel Crop

Are marine algae just as good as fresh water algae in producing biofuels? Yes, according to biologists at University of California San Diego. In a research study published in Algal Research, scientists genetically engineered marine algae to produce five different kinds of industrially important enzymes. The same process, say the researchers, could be used to enhance the yield of petroleum-like compounds from salt water algae.

Researchers say this discovery is important because it expands the kinds of environments in which algae can be conceivably grown for biofuels. For example, algal biofuels could be produced in the ocean, in brackish water of tidelands, or on agricultural land where crops can no longer grow due to the high salt content of the soil.

“What our research shows is that we can achieve in marine species exactly what we’ve already done in fresh water species,” said Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology at UC San Diego, who headed the research project. “There are about 10 million acres of land across the United States where crops can no longer be grown that could be used to produce algae for biofuels. Marine species of algae tend to tolerate a range of salt environments, but many fresh water species don’t do the reverse. They don’t tolerate any salt in the environment.”

“The algal community has worked on fresh water species of algae for 40 years,” added Mayfield, who also directs the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology. “We know how to grow them, manipulate them genetically, express recombinant proteins—all of the things required to make biofuels viable. It was always assumed that we could do the same thing in marine species, but there was always some debate in the community as to whether that could really be done.”

The timing of the research was fortuitous – in October, the National Academy of Sciences committee published a report concluding that the production of algal biofuels might be limited by fresh water. “But now we’ve done it,” said Mayfield. “What this means is that you can use ocean water to grow the algae that will be used to produce biofuels. And once you can use ocean water, you are no longer limited by the constraints associated with fresh water. Ocean water is simply not a limited resource on this planet.”

In addition to expanding this research, the scientists would like to determine whether whole algae, post-oil extraction, could be sued as a feed additive to improve animal feeds.

DoShort Review – Sustainable Transport Fuels

What do you do when you’ve got a frustrating case of insomnia? You read books about energy. Okay, maybe not something you would do but it always keeps me good and entertained. Last night I read the DoShort, “Sustainable Transport Fuels Business Brief,” by David Thorpe in less than two hours. That is part of the sell – learn about a topic in 90 minutes or less. This is a brillant concept lads.

So what did I learn? I got a briefing on research, development and deployment of sustainable fuels around the world. The DoShort kicked off with a brief overview of the history of transportation fuels, relevant legislation, and the role of emissions reduction in determining the sustainable viability of a future fuel.

Next were a series of briefs on various types of fuels beginning with biofuels. The discussion included current technologies and technologies to watch, feedstocks, infrastructure, partnerships, pros and cons and opportunities and challenges. This same type of format was used in the brief sections about electric vehicles, hydrogen vehicles, fuel cells, and a fuel I’d never heard of called hydrazine hydrate. There is even a concept car developed by Daihatsu. Who knew?

Much of the brief was focused on biofuels, since today they are the primary source of alternative fuels for the transportation sector (when specifically discussing fleets, the leading fuel is propane autogas). Here was an interesting tidbit I picked up: according to the IEA Bioenergy Implementing Agreement there are at least 67 local, regional or global initiatives to develop sustainability criteria and standards for biofuels.  (And if you’ve been reading this blog for the past six years you notice that biofuels, and currently the Renewable Fuels Standard, are constantly under attack). The most significant initiatives are: The Global Bioenergy Partnership, The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, International Organization for Standardization, and the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification System.

While I have encyclopedic volumes of energy info stuck in my head, I got most of it reading many good, but dense books that took hours. What I’ve also known is that most people don’t have the time, nor interest, in reading all of these books. That’s why I do it for you and why I now consider these DoShorts such a winner – the reader of “Sustainable Transport Fuels Business Brief ” can sit down at a meeting and can impress the boss with a working knowledge of transportation fuels, in 90 minutes or less.

Algae Can Draw Energy from Other Plants

Bielfeld University Professor Dr. Olaf Kruse has a class he won’t forget. His biological research team has made what they consider to be a groundbreaking discovery – the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii not only engages in photosynthesis, but is also able to draw energy from other plants. The team believes this could have a major impact on the future of bioenergy.  Findings were released in the online journal, Nature Communications.

According to Kruse, it was believed that only worms, bacteria and fungi could digest vegetable cellulose and use it as a source of carbon for their growth and survival. In contrast, plants engage in photosynthesis of carbon dioxide, water and light. Yet through a series of experiments, Professor Dr. Olaf Kruse and his team cultivated the microscopically small green alga species in a low carbon dioxide environment and observed that when faced with such a shortage, these single-cell plants drew energy from neighboring vegetable cellulose instead.

So how does this work? Kruse explains that the alga secretes enzymes (so-called cellulose enzymes) that ‘digest’ the cellulose, breaking it down into smaller sugar components. These are then transported into the cells and transformed into a source of energy and abracadabra - the alga can continue to grow.

“This is the first time that such a behaviour has been confirmed in a vegetable organism,” noted Professor Kruse. ‘That algae can digest cellulose contradicts every previous textbook. To a certain extent, what we are seeing is plants eating plants.”

So does this trick happen with also forms of alga? Kruse says preliminary findings indicate this is in fact the case. And based on this hypothesis, this unique property of algae, the presence of celulose enzymes could be of interest for bioenergy production. There would no longer be a need for organic materials to feed the fungi that are currently used to extract the enzymes needed to break down the cellulose.

Propel & Solazyme Deliver Algae-Based Fuel

Propel Fuels is believed to be the first in the nation to sell consumers algae-based fuel at the pump compliments of Solazyme Inc. The two companies have joined together to offer Solazyme’s algae-based Soladiesel®BD in the Bay Area. The month long pilot program provides the biofuels industry the first opportunity to test consumer response to the advanced biofuel.

According to a statement from Propel, Solazyme’s high quality algae-based SoladieselBD meets or exceeds ASTM quality specifications and has shown performance enhancements including cold temperature operating performance. The fuel is compatible with existing diesel engines and Propel is guaranteeing the fuel’s performance. The algae-based fuel will be sold at the same price as conventional diesel fuels and will be available exclusively at Propel’s Clean Fuel Points in Redwood City, San Jose (N. First St.), Berkeley, and Oakland.

“Propel is committed to providing our customers with access to the highest quality, most sustainable, domestically produced fuels, so we’re proud to introduce the next generation of fuels to the retail market,” said Matt Horton, CEO of Propel Fuels. “Propel’s growing station network provides the critical link between these future fuels and today’s consumer fuel tanks, giving our customers a chance to make history.”

Solazyme’s technology platform converts plant sugars into oils in a few days. Testing undertaken by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) shows that, in a 20 percent blend, SoladieselBD significantly outperforms ultra-low sulfur diesel in total hydrocarbons (THC), carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter tailpipe emissions. This includes an approximate 30 percent reduction in particulates, a 20 percent reduction in CO and an approximate 10 percent reduction in THC.

“Solazyme’s revolutionary algae-based technology platform has supplied our development partners and customers with advanced biofuels that meet or exceed some of the world’s most stringent fuels specifications and requirements, “ added Bob Ames, VP of Fuels, Solazyme.  “We’ve successfully demonstrated our land-based fuels in fleet vehicles and corporate busses, and are excited about this pilot program with Propel because it enables us to make these fuels available to the public.”

Quick Cook Method Turns Algae Into Oil

Researchers from University of Michigan have developed a way to “pressure cook” algae for as little as one minute and transform up to 65 percent of the algae into biocrude. Phil Savage, a professor of chemical engineering at U of M, said the research team is trying to mimic the process nature uses when creating crude oil, and his algae of choice is green marine micro-alga.

To make their one-minute biocrude, Savage and Julia Faeth, a doctoral student in Savage’s lab, filled a steel pipe connector with 1.5 milliliters of wet algae, capped it and plunged it into 1,100-degree Fahrenheit sand. The small volume ensured that the algae was heated through. Previously the team heated the algae from 10 to 90 minutes and saw the best results when treating the algae for 10 to 40 minutes at 570 degrees. A small batch of algae can reach this temperature in one minute.

Savage and Faeth aren’t sure why the one-minute results so much better until they do more experiments. “My guess is that the reactions that produce biocrude are actually must faster than previously thought,” Savage surmised. Yet Faeth suggests that the fast heating might boost the biocrude by keeping unwanted reactions at bay. “For example, the biocrude might decompose into substances that dissolve in water, and the fast heating rates might discourage that reaction,” Faeth said.

Continue reading

Sapphire Energy & ISB Further Develop Algal Biofuels

Sapphire Energy and Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), have formed a strategic partnership to further the development of algae biofuels. The two companies will focus on applying systems biology solutions to algae with the goal of significantly increasing oil yield and improving resistance to crop predators and environmental factors.

Nitin Baliga, director of Integrative Biology at ISB, said of the partnership, “Sapphire is dealing with one of the most complicated problems known to humans: how to make fuel from a renewable resource. Together, we have complementary expertise that will allow us to understand, reverse engineer and rationally alter the gene networks for fuel production in algae.”

According to Alex Aravanis, Sapphire Energy’s chief science officer, said that the company has developed “the premier biotechnology platform” for producing and harvesting algae.  “By working with ISB to apply their systems biology approach, we’re able to more rapidly identify genes and regulatory pathways that can increase yield and move us toward our goal of making Green Crude a market viable, crude oil alternative.”

The companies hope to reverse engineer the gene networks in algae and create strategies that will significantly improve the yield of green oil and crop protection. They also hope to significantly reduce the time to market.

Most recently, Sapphire began operating the first phase of its 300-acre commercial demonstration Green Crude Farm, also known as an Integrated Algal Bio-Refinery, in Columbus, New Mexico, in partnership with the US Department of Energy. Once in full production, The Green Crude Farm is expected to produce approximately 100 barrels of Green Crude per day, and be completed the end of 2014.

Algae Producers Look to Market By-Product of Biodiesel

Just as ethanol producers have been able to market the co-product dried distillers grains (DDGs) as livestock feed, those folks producing algae for biodiesel want to find more uses for what’s leftover once you get the fuel out.

“The Departments of Energy and Defense have been interested in producing biofuels, both jet fuels and transportation fuels from algae,” Texas A&M’s Tyron Wickersham told USDA reporter Rod Bain. “We began looking into [by-product of algae] to figure out a way to market or place the co-product into some useful market that could make use of those nutrients, and they naturally turned to livestock with an emphasis on beef cattle.”

Wickersham’s colleague at Texas A&M, Merritt Drewery, explained they are experimenting with feeding the algae by-product directly or mixing it with DDGs or cotton seed. “And this project actually told us that algae was palatable, because they ate it here.”

The researchers are already noting in their study that the algae co-product has a high-protein content.

Listen to Rod Bain’s report here: USDA Report on Algae Biodiesel By-Product as Livestock Feed

NRC Releases Algae Sustainability Report

This week, the National Research Council (NRC) released a new report, “Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels in the United States.” The report was a result of a request from the Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s (DOE-EERE) Biomass Program.

The purpose of this study was to identify and anticipate potential sustainability concerns associated with a selected number of pathways for large-scale deployment of algal biofuels; discuss potential strategies for mitigating those concerns; and suggest indicators and metrics that could be used and data to be collected for assessing sustainability across the biofuel supply chain to monitor progress as the industry develops. In addition, NRC was asked to identify indicators that are most critical to address or have the greatest potential for improvement through DOE intervention as well as to suggest preferred cost and benefit analyses that could best aid in the decision-making process.

Ultimately, the report found that scaling up the production of biofuels made from algae to meet at least 5 percent, or approximately 39 billion liters, of U.S. transportation fuel needs would place unsustainable demands on energy, water, and nutrients. However, these concerns are not a definitive barrier for future production, and innovations that require research and development could help realize algal biofuels’ full potential.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) today welcomed the report and noted that mitigation strategies are currently being developed to reduce energy, water and nutrients needed to convert algae to biofuels.

Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO’s Industrial & Environmental Section, said, “While the National Research Council catalogued and prioritized every potential environmental and resource challenge for the development of algae biofuels, their report correctly concludes that the industry has developed or is developing sustainable strategies to overcome these challenges. Biotechnology will continue to play a crucial role in the improvement of the productivity and economic viability of algae biofuels and other advanced biofuels that are cleaner, safer and healthier than petroleum-based fuels.”

Erickson added, “The potential benefits of developing algae biofuels – which include reducing reliance on foreign oil and contributing to a healthier economy by deploying U.S. technology – warrant continued research, development and commercial development of algae biofuels.”

Algae Aviation Facility Lands in Europe

Lufthansa and Algae.Tec have created a partnership to construct a large scale algae to aviation biofuels production facility. The facility will be located adjacent to an industrial CO2 source. Lufthansa will arrange 100 percent funding for the project and has committed to a long-term offtake agreement of at least 50 percent of the crude oil produced at an agreed upon price. Algae.Tec , who will manage the facility, will receive licence fees and profits from the project.

Recently, the Advisory Council for Aviation Research and Innovation in Europe released a road map outlining the government and industry-funded research required to make Europe’s Flightpath 2050 vision of reducing CO2 emissions 75% relative to 2000 by the middle of the century, a reality.

The agreement cements cooperation between Algae.Tec and Lufthansa for the industrial production of crude algae suitable for conversion into aviation kerosene and conventional diesel fuels. The algae oil produced in the facility will meet the European Union Renewable Energy Directive and shall be certified according to ISCC – Standard.

Brazilian Bioenergy Innovation Awards Announced

During the World Biofuels Markets Brazil 2012 conference in São Paulo, SEE ALGAE Technology and Grupo JB took home the Brazilian Bioenergy Innovation of the Year award for their algae biofuel project. The Brazilian Bioenergy Deal of the Year award was given to GraalBio, Beta Renewables, DSM and Novozymes for their collaborative cellulosic ethanol production project.

Nadim Chaudhry, CEO of Green Power Conferences, said that the two projects using next generation feedstocks of microalgae and agricultural waste, will make significant economic and environmental impacts across Brazil. He added that these colloborations are just one of many demonstrating that the Brazilian bioenergy industry is making great progress.

SEE ALGAE (SAT) is developing infrastructure for the commercial production of algae-based biofuels and bioproducts. The award-winning $10 million project, currently under construction, comprises an industrial-scale microalgae production plant at the site of an existing JB sugarcane ethanol facility.

Anticipated to be operational in September 2013, the facility, being constructed in the north-eastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, will utilize wast CO2 emitted at the sugarcane ethanol plant to produce bioethanol and algal biomass from both natural and genetically modified algae strains. This algae production facility will utilize SAT’s proprietary photobioreactors to grow algae using the sugarcane facility’s CO2 waste stream as its primary feedstock.

The group anticipates the plant will annually produce 1.2 million liters (317,000 gallons) of algae oil for conversion into biodiesel and 1,100 tons of protein-rich algae biomass for the local cattle industry or, if operated with genetically engineered algae strains, up to 2.2 million liters (580,000 gallons) of bioethanol. Continue reading

Diatoms Could Lead to Biofuel Breakthrough

Researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) are looking back to life during the dinosaur age and studying the role diatoms could play in algae-based biofuel production. Diatoms are tiny marine pre-historic life forms and can simultaneously produce biofuels as well as semiconductors, biomedical products and health foods. The technology has moved out of a science fiction movie and landed in a fast-paced drama, and with the help of a $2 million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation, hopefully will become an everyday reality.

Researchers believe, in theory, that the microscopic algae will be able to utilize some of the most abundant and affordable materials on Earth, such as silicon and nitrates, add a bit of sunshine, a few drops of water and carbon dioxide and you have the recipe for affordable products. Using a similar concept as the “biorefinery, this process is called the “photosynthetic biorefinery.”

“This NSF program is intended to support long-range concepts for a sustainable future, but in fact we’re demonstrating much of the science behind these technologies right now,” said Greg Rorrer, an OSU professor and head of the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering. Rorrer has studied the remarkable power of diatoms for more than a decade.

Rorrer continued, “We have shown how diatoms can be used to produce semiconductor materials, chitin fibers for biomedical applications, or the lipids needed to make biofuels. We believe that we can produce all of these products in one facility at the same time and move easily from one product to the other.”

While researchers already know that biofuels and other products can be made from algae, often times the cost is prohibitive. OSU researchers believe that this process could significantly reduce cost allowing biofuels to make more economic sense. As part of the work at OSU, researchers plan to develop mathematical models so that various options can be tested and computers used to perfect the technology before actually building it.

“Regular algae don’t make everything that diatoms can make,” Rorrer added. “This is the only organism we know of that can create organized structures at the nano-level and naturally produce such high-value products. With the right components, they will make what you want them to make.”

Algae Facility Partners with ReVenture Park

Renewed World Energies (RWE) has agreed to enter into a partnership with ReVenture Park in Charlotte, North Carolina to develop an algae-to-fuel pilot plant. The Eco-Industrial Park caters to clean energy businesses and will work with RWE to expand its technology from pilot scale to commercial scale. The company is developing different strains of algae that will be utilized to create biofuels as well as health supplements. The pilot facility is expected to be operational September 30, 2012.

There are numerous species of algae and each one has its own unique characteristics. One goal of researchers is to identify and develop strains that are best fits for certain uses, such as to produce jet fuel or for use as a replacement for oil in cosmetics, food and fertilizer. RWE’s system produces algae oil and algae cake, which can be fed as a food supplement to livestock or to make fish feed.

RWE President Richard Armstrong founded his company in South Carolina but chose North Carolina to take it to the next level. “We were attracted to the eco-industrial synergies at ReVenture Park. North Carolina also seems to be more attuned to the renewable fuels, and offers multiple benefits for showcasing new technology.”

ReVenture Park took advantage of nearly 700 acres of abandoned land that was a former textile dye-manufactured site. It is now being transformed into an Eco-Industrial Park focused on research and development of clean technology.

“We are pleased to have struck a deal to have RWE move a facility to ReVenture,” said Tom McKittrick, President Forsite Development. “RWE was attracted to the sites extensive existing infrastructure which then can utilize and there are multiple opportunities for us to collaborate.”

GPRE Shenandoah Ethanol Plant Marks 5 Years

Green Plains Renewable Energy‘s (GRPE) ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa is celebrating its 5th Anniversary. August 23 marks the first date of Shenandoah’s first grind. GPRE is excited about the achievement because this was their first of nine plants that they own and operate. In addition, this is the location of their partnership with BioProcess Algae, currently the only algae biorefinery using carbon dioxide directly from an industrial plant.

Since Shenandoah’s 1st grind on August 23, 2007:

  • Processed 108,665,339 bushels of corn
  • Produced 308,806,276 gallons of ethanol
  • Produced 625,000 tons of dried distillers grains
  • Produced 519,745 tons of modified distillers grains
  • Produced 6,900 tons of corn oil
  • Created 43 jobs in Shenandoah

GPRE held a celebration event for the local community that included a social hour, lunch and several presentations. Speakers included; Jim Stark, Vice President of Investor & Media Relations, Green Plains; Shenandoah Mayor Richard “Dick” Hunt; Gregg Connell, Executive Director, Shenandoah Chamber & Industry; Jeff Briggs, Chief Operating Officer, Green Plains; and Cory Scamman, General Manager – Green Plains Shenandoah.

Bioprocess Algae is in the final stage of construction of its Phase III Commercial Farm and it is expected to be completed in the next few weeks.

Algae for $2 Per Gallon

AFS BioOil has conducted initial tests on its algae production system, and the company states that they will be in the $2 per gallon range of production at commercial scale. For advanced biofuels, commercial scale is at least 1 million gallons per year of production.

“The next project for us is one to three million gallon/yr system,” said CEO Vadim Krifuks. “We are putting all our efforts in preparing to execute it.”

Krifuks said his company is looking for partners around the world to join them in their development. Most recently, the company partnered with a renewable electricity company that has the technology to convert waste heat into electricity at a cost of  6 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh).  Krifuks believes they can reduce the cost by another 2 cents per kWh.

The next step in this project is for the two companies to combine electricity production with biodiesel production into one facility. The two companies are laying the plans for a 5 MWe renewable electricity and 1 to 3 million gallons per year of biodiesel project. The design stage is underway and the project scope will be released later this year.

Biofuel Producers Coordinating Council Formed

Eight biofuel industry organizations today announced the formation of the Biofuels Producers Coordinating Council to jointly advocate for national policy for increased energy security through domestic biofuel production.

The new Council will include Michael McAdams from the Advanced Biofuels Association; Brooke Coleman from the Advanced Ethanol Council; Mary Rosenthal from the Algal Biomass Organization; Brian Jennings from the American Coalition for Ethanol; Brent Erickson from the Biotechnology Industry Organization; Tom Buis from Growth Energy; Anne Steckel from the National Biodiesel Board; and Bob Dinneen from the Renewable Fuels Association.

The Renewable Fuel Standard sets a path for energy security, reduced reliance on foreign oil, and a cleaner, healthier environment by setting annual standards to increase production and use of biofuels in the United States. The members of the Council jointly pledged support for maintaining this policy and continuing to achieve its goals. Since adoption of the Renewable Fuel Standard, U.S. production of biofuels has tripled and reliance on foreign oil has been cut by nearly one-third. The RFS is producing demonstrable results for U.S. energy security.