Page 1


fall 2011



for Commercialization Dutch Scientists Strive to Debottleneck Technology, Costs for Industrial Scale-Up Page 28


An Overview of Where Algae Startups are Today Page 16

Transforming Wastes, Algae into Biocrude Page 34

And NASA, SDSU Develop Algae System for Use in Space Page 20


fall issue 2011 VOL. 01 ISSUE 02







Why some firms thrive while others don’t survive By Luke Geiver

Algae can aid NASA’s future space exploration By Erin Voegele

Where They Are Now




The Making of a Super Plant

An ancient algae strain gets a genetic makeover By Luke Geiver



Algae: The Obvious Choice for Omega-3s

By Todd Kimberly



Process Engineering: From Beakers to Barrels

By Roman Wolff





A cutting-edge research park in the Netherlands By Erin Voegele

Researchers turn wastes and algae into biocrude By Bryan Sims

Clearing the Bottlenecks

The Kaolin Algae Pits of Lorient


fall 2011



for Commercialization Dutch Scientists Strive to Debottleneck Technology, Costs for Industrial Scale-Up Page 28


An Overview of Where Algae Startups are Today Page 16

Transforming Wastes, Algae into Biocrude Page 34

AND NASA, SDSU Develop Algae System for Use in Space Page 20


Waste Not


By Peter Brown


Wageningen University’s new $OJDH,QGXVWU\8SGDWH AlgaePARC in the Netherlands houses four different pilot algae production technologies: three photobioreactor designs and an open pond system.



A Big Bang for Algae


Editor’s Note

Where is Algae? By Ron Kotrba


A First Use of Oil- and Gas-Produced Water as a Medium for Algae By Enid J. Sullivan and Paul Laur

10 ABO

13 NAA

11 Events Calendar

14 Business Briefs

Pardon Me, Do You Speak Algae? By Mary Rosenthal

12 Legal

Venture Capital Due Diligence in Algae Deals By Luca Zullo and Todd Taylor

Algae Missing from DOE’s Billion Ton Update By Barry Cohen People, Partnerships & Deals

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editor’s note

Many in the algae community are asking why algae was excluded from the son of the billion-ton study, the updated draft recently released by the U.S. energy department.

Where Is Algae? Ron Kotrba, Editor

“After over 50 years and millions of dollars, that’s what I’d like to know,” said National Algae Association Executive Director Barry Cohen in an official NAA statement on the matter. “Other than to be told that leadership of the DOE Biomass Program thinks our requests for information or clarification are ‘harassment,’ we have received no response, including from the head of Team Algae, to the inquiries asking why algae was excluded from the Billion Ton Update, nor have NAA’s questions and concerns after participating in the Biomass Peer Review meetings been addressed. That being said, this latest round of apparent buffoonery should not have a material effect on NAA or its members, or on our mission to fast-track commercialization of the algae production industry in the U.S. We have achieved all of our accomplishments through the dedication of algaepreneurs and algae farmers, most of whom are neither reliant on nor recipients of government funding. NAA is very thankful for their contributions and their collaboration because they are the ones who are going to make this commercial-scale algae production happen here in the U.S. I do have concerns, however, when I hear about government-funded algae research projects being mothballed. We want to create jobs and economic security in the U.S.! Our membership does not want to be purchasing oil from other countries!” A source at DOE tells me that the exclusion of algae, an aquatic biomass, is no surprise since the work was conducted in conjunction with the terrestrial-oriented USDA and National Agricultural Statistics Service. “Nobody is providing county-by-county data on algae production yet,” the source said. This was one of the topics on a recent entry of mine on The Biorefining Blog, to which Roman Wolff, president of Houston-based Enhanced Biofuels and a contributor in this issue, said, “The goal of the study was to have the best crystal ball possible. … [but] the report assigned zero production of fuel from algae over the next two decades. Sadly, many investors agree with the report saying that algae, while it is commercial already (and has been for centuries, I can send you a copy of a Chinese painting of boats collecting macroalgae), it is not commercial for fuel production. Fuel is the lowest price commodity, and algae is not the lowest price biomass.” Another commenter based out of Houston, Luis LaRotta, said, “Algae fuel must be competitive with current oil pricing, and the infrastructure is not ready to support that load.” What do you think? I encourage you to write us here at Algae Technology & Business and tell us your thoughts on the matter.


ASSOCIATE EDITORS Luke Geiver takes a broad look at several algae companies and their claims, and lays it all out in “Where They Are Now” on page 16. $OJDH,QGXVWU\8SGDWH


Erin Voegele travels to the Netherlands and writes about Wageningen University’s new AlgaePARC in “Clearing the Bottlenecks” on page 28.

Bryan Sims covers low-lipid algae and synergies with carbon capture and wastewater treatment in his feature article, “Waste Not,” on page 34.

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2 26

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EDITORIAL EDITOR Ron Kotrba ASSOCIATE EDITORS Erin Voegele Luke Geiver Bryan Sims COPY EDITOR Jan Tellmann

ART ART DIRECTOR Jaci Satterlund graphic designer Erica Marquis



Please recycle this magazine and remove inserts or samples before recycling


Customer Service Please call (866) 746-8385 or email us at Subscriptions to Algae Technology & Business are free of charge - distributed twice a year - to Biorefining Magazine and Biodiesel Magazine subscribers. To subscribe, visit or you can send your mailing address and payment (checks made out to BBI International) to: Biorefining Magazine Subscriptions, 308 Second Ave. N., Suite 304, Grand Forks, ND 58203. You can also fax a subscription form to (701) 746-5367. Back Issues, Reprints and Permissions Select back issues are available for $3.95 each, plus shipping. Article reprints are also available for a fee. For more information, contact us at (866) 746-8385 or Advertising Algae Technology & Business provides a specific topic delivered to a highly targeted audience. We are committed to editorial excellence and high-quality print production. To find out more about Algae Technology & Business advertising opportunities, please contact us at (866) 746-8385 or Letters to the Editor We welcome letters to the editor. Send Algae Technology & Business Letters to the Editor, 308 2nd Ave. N., Suite 304, Grand Forks, ND 58203 or e-mail to Please include your name, address and phone number. Letters may be edited for clarity and/or space. COPYRIGHT Š 2011 by BBI International

fall 2011 | 7


A First Use of Oiland Gas-Produced Water as a Medium for Algae By Enid J. Sullivan and Paul Laur


ater is the largest quantity resource other than land that will be needed for algal biofuel production. An estimated 50,000 acre-feet per year are projected to be needed for large (1,000acre) growth facilities depending upon local climate1. This can be compared to the total annual freshwater irrigation withdrawals in the U.S. of about 153,000 acre-feet per year2—a resource that is already stressed. One goal of the research conducted by the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bio-products (NAABB) consortium members is to show that algae cultivation need not impinge upon limited fresh water resources, particularly in arid regions. This requires the use of alternate resources including sewage wastewaters, brackish surface and ground waters, and oil- and gas-produced water. Oil and gas production in this country currently brings about 800 billion gallons of brackish and saline water to the surface annually3 along with the oil and gas. This amount is comparable to a weeklong flow of the Mississippi river at its mouth. This water has characteristics suitable for growth of marine algae; however, up to 98 percent of this water is routinely disposed as a waste product. Salinity of the water varies from near fresh (less than 1,000 ppm total dissolved solids, or TDS) to highly saline (greater than 100,000 ppm TDS, or three times typical seawater levels), and it contains bicarbonate and other micronutrients that can benefit algae. $OJDH,QGXVWU\8SGDWH Some of it may be contaminated with


oils, toxic metals, and chemicals from the oil production process and would require some pretreatment. In short, these large quantities of saline water that do not need to be pumped to the surface and are largely unused for other purposes have great potential economic value for algal biofuel production. Researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Eldorado Biofuels, both members of NAABB, have located and analyzed potential locations in New Mexico and Texas that are viable sources of produced water. The selected sources show consistent water quality, and permits to use the water from the sources are readily obtainable. Alfonse Viszolay of V.M. Technologies, a partner of Eldorado Biofuels, provided a treatment system that was used to remove organic contaminants and reduce toxic metal content and salinity from the produced water. Greg Wagner of LANL then tested bench-scale growth of Nannochloropsis Salina 1776, a salt-tolerant, oil-producing alga, in these treated waters. In February, in collaboration with NAABB consortium member Texas AgriLife Research, the researchers conducted the first ever pilot-scale test of algae growth using water from an oil production well in Jal, N.M. The test was conducted by Lou Brown, project manager of the Pecos Algae Facility, at the Texas AgriLife Research facility at Pecos, Texas. The selected produced water was brackish water (12,000 mg/L TDS) with low free oil content. It was pretreated with UV/ozone oxidation to reduce dissolved organic concentrations and then flocculated with lime and coagulants to remove hardness, metals and some salinity.

Nannochloropsis salina algae were grown for two weeks in 80-gallon reservoirs using Pecos city water and the produced water as comparative media. Algae growth, productivity and water chemistry were closely monitored. Initial growth of algae with low concentrations of produced water was similar to city water, however, higher produced water concentrations became growth limiting. The researchers are now testing the hypothesis that high initial bicarbonate (greater than 400 mg/L), along with salinity increases (up to 40 mS/cm specific conductance) during growth were a cause of the limitation. Copper, iron, and zinc metal concentrations were similar in both media and, thus, were not likely causes of the limitation. Any of these metals can become toxic at levels beyond the tolerance of the algae. Future work includes bench-scale testing at LANL and Texas Agrilife to be followed by a second pilot-scale test this fall. The treatment methods will be adjusted to improve algal growth, total biomass produced and oil yields. NAABB research is funded by the U.S. DOE’s Office of Biomass Program. Pate, Ronald, “Technoeconomics, siting, and resource use challenges for onshore algal biofuel production,” Wind, Sea, and Algae International Workshop, Maribo, Denmark, April 20-22, 2009. 2 USGS, 2000., accessed on 04/04/2011. 3 Clark, C.E., and Veil, J.A., 2009. “Produced water volumes and management practices in the United States.” Report #ANL/EVS/R-09/1, Argonne National Laboratory for the U.S. DOE, September. 1

Authors: Enid J. Sullivan, Paul Laur Technical Staff Member, Los Alamos National Lab; Founder, El Dorado Biofuels

April 16-19, 2012

Colorado Convention Center Denver, Colorado

The Largest Biomass Industry Networking Event in the World! Sponsorships and Exhibit Space

Now Available

The International Biomass Conference & Expo is anticipated be even larger than last year’s successful event. With an anticipated 1,500 attendees, 230 exhibitors, 120 speakers and 60 sponsors, you’ll experience firsthand why the majority of our past exhibitors and sponsors have walked away with valuable contacts and sales leads. Register Today and Grow Your Future. CONTACT US: 866-746-8385 Follow Us:

A New Era in Energy: The Future is Growing Sponsors as of September 14, 2011


Pardon Me, Do You Speak Algae? By Mary Rosenthal


he rapid growth and explosive innovation of algae technologies are creating unprecedented opportunities for job growth, economic development and intellectual property, all while promising to address some of the world’s most intractable problems, from climate change to energy and food supply. Between 2005 and 2009 alone, the number of algae-to-fuels companies has more than tripled. And analysts project that the industry will grow by nearly 50 percent each year in the coming decade. With growing private investment in the industry and several demonstration- and commercial-scale facilities beginning construction or coming online this year, the rate of growth and innovation in the industry shows no sign of slowing. And with this growth has come a stunning array of technologies, processes and approaches for growing, harvesting and refining algae into fuels and other byproducts. Operations vary greatly in both size and product— from small units producing specialty chemicals and nutraceuticals to large-scale facilities producing commercial quantities of advanced biofuels. Others still will produce massive quantities of biomass for food and feed. On one hand, this is exciting and promising. On the other, it is creating headaches for investors, technologists, researchers, strategic partners and entrepreneurs as they try to evaluate algae technologies relative to one another through techno-economic analyses. It also makes it hard to perform life-cycle analyses and determine the carbon footprint of any given technology. For example, how best to account for one facility using open ponds fed by a mix of $OJDH,QGXVWU\8SGDWH wastewater and CO2 pumped from a gas line versus another facility using water sourced 10 |

from a municipal water supply and fed by CO2 recycled from a nearby coal-fired power plant? Or one fed by CO2 emissions from an ethanol plant? Or one that uses trapped methane gas from livestock or dairy operations? Likewise, how best to account for the addition of a billion tons of animal feed resulting from the dry mass from dewatering? These are just a few of the interesting challenges that face anyone trying to accurately encapsulate and rate the benefits of an algae technology. Unlike other industries, our industry has not yet developed a common approach or a common language, if you will, for evaluating technologies and business models. For instance, first-generation biofuels have the GREET (greenhouse gases, regulated emissions, and energy use in transportation) model whereas traditional businesses have the GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) model. These models provide an objective and trusted model for evaluating companies, impacts, etc. As the trade association for the algae industry, the Algal Biomass Organization is working to develop such a model, or at least a foundation for a model, called a minimum descriptive language for characterizing economic and environmental inputs and outputs of an aquatic biomass operation. This project has been led by our all-volunteer Technical Standards Committee, which has been working since 2008 to develop standards and best practices for the algae industry and facilitate the flow of information among industry stakeholders. Last December, the ABO and the Technical Standards Committee published its “Algal Industry Minimum Descriptive Language” document—the first attempt at establishing a common language for the algae industry.

It provided a set of metrics and variables for measuring the economic and environmental footprint of an algae production facility, including all inputs and outputs. The document reflects the input of more than 25 industry leaders, including representatives from trade associations, national labs, companies and research institutions. In addition, we published the draft on our website and invited public comments, constructive criticism, input and suggestions. Responses from this process, as well as further industry input, have helped us sharpen the document’s focus and create an even better foundation for cohesion in evaluating algae technologies. A revised version of the document was published on the ABO website this summer. Through this document and ongoing efforts of people in the broader commercial and academic sectors, we hope to continually improve this approach to creating a common language for the comprehensive evaluation of algae production facilities. Not only will this be helpful to inform the techno-economic analyses upon which investors and strategic partners will base funding decisions, it will be critical for accurate life-cycle analyses that will drive public policies that will dramatically impact our industry. Our hope is that this document, or one like it, will soon achieve the status of other models like GREET and GAAP and serve as the basis for evaluation of algae technologies today and into the future. Because whether you’re an algae entrepreneur, researcher, investor or end user, we all need to speak the same language. Author: Mary Rosenthal Executive Director, Algal Biomass Organization (763) 458-0068

events calendar

Algae Biomass Summit

October 24-27, 2011

Hyatt Regency Minneapolis | Minneapolis, Minnesota Organized by the Algae Biomass Organization and coproduced by BBI International, this event brings current and future producers of biobased products and energy together with algae crop growers, municipal leaders, technology providers, equipment manufacturers, project developers, investors and policy makers. It’s a true one-stop shop—the world’s premier educational and networking junction for all algae industries. (866)746-8385 |

Southeast Biomass Conference & Trade Show

November 1-3, 2011

Biomass Event Hotspot: San Francisco in January 1/16

If you go to one event in the western U.S. this year, make it BBI International’s Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show, produced jointly by Biomass Power & Thermal and Biorefining magazines. The Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show, which heads to the Bay area this year, will be held Jan. 16-18 at the San Francisco Marriot Marquis. The conference, one of three distinct regional offshoots of BBI’s International Biomass Conference & Expo, will feature more than 60 speakers in four tracks: - - - -

Biomass power and thermal Feedstocks Biomass project development and finance Biorefining

The Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show will connect the area’s current and future producers of biomass-derived electricity, industrial heat and power, and advanced biofuels, with: - Waste generators - Aggregators - Growers - Municipal leaders - Utility executives

- - - -

Technology providers Equipment manufacturers Investors Policy makers

The Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show is designed to help you, the biomass industry stakeholder, identify and evaluate solutions that fit your operation. It’s time to improve your operational efficiencies and tap into the revenuegenerating potential of sustainable biomass resources in the region. Register today at fall 2011 | 11

Hyatt Regency Atlanta | Atlanta, Georgia With an exclusive focus on biomass utilization in the Southeast—from the Virginias to the Gulf Coast—the Southeast Biomass Conference & Trade Show will connect the area’s current and future producers of biomass-derived electricity, industrial heat and power, and advanced biofuels, with waste generators, aggregators, growers, municipal leaders, utility executives, technology providers, equipment manufacturers, investors and policy makers. (866)746-8385 |

Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show

January 16-18, 2012

San Francisco Marriott Marquis | San Francisco, California With an exclusive focus on biomass utilization in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Nevada, the Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show will connect the area’s current and future producers of biomass-derived electricity, industrial heat and power, and advanced biofuels, with waste generators, aggregators, growers, municipal leaders, utility executives, technology providers, equipment manufacturers, investors and policy makers. (866)746-8385 |

International Biomass Conference & Expo

April 16-19, 2012

San Francisco Marriott Marquis | Denver, Colorado Organized by BBI International and coproduced by Biomass Power & Thermal and Biorefining Magazine, this event brings current and future producers of Bioenergy and biobased products together with waste generators, energy crop growers, municipal leaders, utility executives, technology providers, equipment manufacturers, project developers, investors and policy makers. It’s a true one-stop shop—the world’s premier educational and networking junction for all biomass industries. Presentation ideas are now being accepted online. (866)746-8385 | Colorado Convention Center Denver, Colorado | fall 2011 | 11


Venture Capital Due Diligence in Algae Deals By Luca Zullo and Todd Taylor


nterest in algae remains very high among venture and strategic investors. Being prepared for dealing with them is critical to your success in getting an investment. After you have made the initial contact with a potential investor and they expressed interest, you will need to be ready to respond to due diligence where you tell them all about yourself. It is a key part of the investment analysis decision making process. The outcome is often the deciding factor on whether to invest. First, think like a Boy Scout and be prepared. Don’t wait to get the due diligence checklist from the investor. Google “due diligence checklist” or ask your advisors for one before you start contacting investors. Gather the material, so you are ready to respond immediately once asked. More important than anything, do not lie, exaggerate or withhold important information. Not only will that likely be revealed, but the final investment agreement will require you to make a legally binding statement that you provided all material information to the investor. Failure to do so or misleading them is not only a breach of the agreement but also could be grounds for fraud. There are elements of due diligence that are typical of any startup such as financial projection, business plan, intellectual property portfolio and qualification of the team. Besides those, algae companies should expect to also be investigated in four major techno-economic areas that underline both the complexity and the potential impact of algal biomass. We identify those as business and society, engineering, systems integration, and biology, in ascending order of technical difficulty. Each is important in its own right, and the lower difficulty areas often serve as a stage gate to be passed before the next area is addressed. Business and society questions include coproducts marketability and value. That requires a realistic analysis of the entry barriers that an upstart may have to penetrate conservative markets $OJDH,QGXVWU\8SGDWH with large, entrenched players. Some literature searches showing like products selling for high

12 |

prices will not be enough. Most importantly, in this part of the due diligence, one needs to consider the interaction between one’s own business and society at large. Do you know what the permitting requirements of your business may be? Have you engaged the relevant stakeholders? Did you have a discussion with local, state and federal government officers and agency about permits? If you plan to use genetically modified organisms, have you thought about possible public opinion or criticism of nongovernmental organizations? How do you plan to handle them? Do you have a biosecurity plan? What is your worst case scenario and its contingency? You do not want to scare your investors needlessly, but when it comes to perception associated to safety and environmental impact risks, remember Andy Grove’s motto: “Only the paranoid survives.” If you perceive a risk, so will your investor. Do not hope it will go away, but work a clear mitigation plan and communicate accordingly. Systems integration addresses issues such as nutrients, land and water availability and suitability, temperature and solar irradiation. We all know that to grow algae we need water, nutrients, sunlight and carbon dioxide. Do you have enough of them at the same time and place? For how long? At what cost? What is your actual consumption? Have you thought about these issues in terms of long-term life-cycle analysis? How scalable is your business model? Are these factors constraining your ability to deploy outside of certain geographical areas? If so, where are they and are they consistent with your proposed business model? Engineering addresses mainly process engineering choices, which, all too often, are taken for granted or left for later. How complex is your process for harvesting the algae or their products or, if applicable, fractionate them and extract added value coproducts of suitable purity? How energy intensive is your process? How reliant are you on known-to-the-world processes and unit operation and how much improvement, if any, you may be required to achieve desired performance. Some operations like drying, dewatering,

pumping, etc., are well known outside this field and many similar process engineering technologies are in the area of diminishing returns when it comes to further optimization. Do not assume that some technology will be developed to, say, cut in half the cost of drying biomass when compared to the existing state of the art. Do not forget the mundane parts of engineering design such as pumping costs while getting enthralled in a revolutionary photobioreactor system. Biology questions relate to biomass and oil yields, cultivation method, productivity, and control of ecosystems. Here is where many algae companies use most of their resources. These are the most exciting—and often most difficult—issues that relate to an algae business, and the typical startup has plenty to present. Nonetheless, even here critical questions are often left unanswered. How different will the situation be when we leave the lab or a relatively controlled environment to move into industrial production? Can you ensure consistent yields over a long time? How do you control contaminations from native strains or infestation from parasites and predators? In a reprisal of previous issues, how do you handle biosecurity and containment of genetically modified strains, if any, as you scale up? Obviously, business plans and technologies for algae companies can vary, and not all of the above questions will be relevant for every algae company, but whether your company is developing an end-to-end solution or a part of a system, a venture investor will examine your company in light of the entire business need of the industry and always ask “What problem does this solve? At what cost? What new risks are encountered?” Being able to address the four areas above in due diligence will be key to obtaining financing. Authors: Todd Taylor, Luca Zullo Attorney, Fredrikson & Byron; Founder, VerdeNero LLC


Algae Missing from DOE’s Billion Ton Update By Barry Cohen


resident Obama recently said, “The country that leads on clean energy will lead the global economy in the 21st century. We have to be part of this change, or we will be left behind.” We are not only being left behind, but we can’t even see it for the dust in our eyes. They “get” algae in Australia and China, and they are doing it. We get it in the U.S., and what are we doing? Countries around the world are coming to the U.S. to shop for algae production systems, knowing that the technologies exist, and knowing that the companies in the U.S. are financially starving—and knowing that the government agency bestowed with the duty to develop alternative fuels to strengthen national security has failed miserably. The failure is so apparent that the team bestowed with leadership of this initiative will not respond to emails or return phone calls in this, an administration assuring total and complete transparency, responsibility and accountability. Former Queensland premier Peter Beattie agreed with President Obama, describing biofuels as a driver today, and the main driver by 2030. “Fuel security, emissions, economic development, the arguments for biofuels are true, and a given,” Beattie said. “We have moved beyond that now. The aviation industry, for example, has said that biofuels are critical to its long-term success.” He referred to the “American obsession with energy independence,” saying, “The U.S. Navy will

have to find eight major suppliers around the world [for its Green Strike Force] and we are here in a geographic sector in the South Pacific all by ourselves. We can be a major supplier to the Green Fleet, which is scheduled to be fully operational by 2016.” Bill Lyons, Boeing research general manager, recently said the crucial threshold for production was producing 600 million gallons of sustainable aviation biofuels by 2016. “If we get there, we know that we have made this commercial,” he said. Boeing is the same company that, according to Canadian Business Online, in May 2010 joined with U.S government agencies, Chinese research institutions and state companies, including Air China Ltd. and PetroChina Ltd., to develop biofuels for use by Chinese airlines based on algae or oily nuts. According to the press release, Al Bryant, Boeing vice president for research and technology in China, said, “The first flight in China using biofuels could happen this year, and the fuel could be in use in commercial aviation in three to five years ... Four test flights using biofuels have been flown successfully in the United States… Today we've proven it can be flown,” Bryant said. “It's a matter of scaling it up so it can be commercialized.” When asked why the initiative was taking place in China rather than in the U.S., Bryant said, “They've made the decision to move faster.” U.S. companies have been entering into agreements with companies in China, Australia, Israel, Poland and throughout Europe. One company leader said, “China is currently the largest producer of algae in the world; it is also the largest consumer. Leaders clearly see the benefits of further

developing this industry for both proteins and fuels to meet their domestic needs and, potentially, for export.” The U.S. DOE released its Billion Ton Update in August, 2011, which supplemented its 2005 “Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion Ton Annual Supply.” Algae projects have not been ignored: algae research programs have been funded at numerous universities and government labs, and several grant recipients received their full grant amount but completed less than 50 percent of their projects. The DOE’s Biomass Program conducted a National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap Workshop in December 2008 and released the results, the “National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap,” in May 2010. While it lists perceived challenges, nowhere in the Roadmap does it give one reason why algae should not be pursued, and most, if not all, of those challenges have since been met. Algae received $78 million in support from the DOE in last January alone, but where is algae in the update? Microcrops rate exactly two comments, one of which is to explain that algae is excluded from the study. How can the DOE take a survey of biomass available in 2030—with serious policy and public investment implications—without taking any view on algae? Author: Barry Cohen Executive Director, National Algae Association (936) 321-1125

fall 2011 | 13

business briefs People, Partnerships & Deals

Finnish renewable diesel producer Neste Oil has launched a joint algae research program with the Marine Research Centre at the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) in an effort to further expand its feedstock portfolio by potentially incorporating algal oil as a raw material for the production of NExBTL, the company’s trademarked renewable diesel product. Launched in August, the two-year research program with SYKE will focus on testing the lipid production capacity of different types of algal strains and analyzing how the quality and quantity of the lipids could be optimized by adjusting the conditions under which algae are grown. Since 2008, the use of planktonic algae has been studied as a source of bioenergy during several national and international projects at SYKE’s Marine Research Centre. The main objective has been screening and optimizing the lipid production capacity of algae strains isolated from the Baltic Sea. According to Neste Oil, the suitability of algal oil for use in the NExBTL process has already been confirmed as it’s already working with a number of international research institutions, universities and companies in the algae research arena. The company announced this summer that it would take part in two new international algae research projects in Australia and Netherlands. Besides algae, the company intends to use jatropha and camelina oils to produce NExBTL. University of Illinois researchers, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of California-Berkeley, have engineered a unique yeast strain that is capable of converting nonterrestrial biomass, red seaweed, into cellulosic ethanol rather quickly. According to the researchers, when hydrolyzed red seaweed yields glucose and galactose, but typical yeast have an appetite for glucose $OJDH,QGXVWU\8SGDWH and won’t consume galactose until glucose is gone. To counter this, researchers engineered 14 |

a Saccharomyces cerevisiae strain that expressed genes coding for a new sugar transporter, cellodextrin, and an enzyme, beta-glucosidase, that’s capable of breaking down cellobiose, a dimeric form of glucose, at the intracellular level. The result is a yeast strain that can coferment cellobiose and galactose simultaneously, which decreases the production time of ethanol by half. While ethanol was produced via this unique process, the researchers intend to shift toward producing other higher alcohols such as isobutanol with the same process. The U.K.’s National Non-Food Crops Centre has been chosen to investigate the environmental impacts of algae-based bioenergy. The NNFCC was chosen by the U.K.’s Natural Environment Research Council special algae group called the Algal Bioenergy Special Interest Group, because the NNFCC works closely with the British government, industry and other research councils. The study to assess the environmental impact of algae-based energy in the form of fuel or biobased chemical use will help ensure algal biofuels avoid the controversy associated with conventional biofuels. In addition to assessing the environmental impact, the work done by NNFCC will also help the region to formulate a long-term plan for algae. The report will include reference documents for policymakers, including tips and requirements needed to help the U.K.’s algae industry succeed. Vertically-integrated algae developer Aurora Algae received $22 million in funding in a round led by Oak Investment Partners and other existing investors, along with an undisclosed foreign strategic investor. The funding in its latest round will help the company execute plans for construction of its commercial facility in Maitland, Western Australia, for which the company secured 610 hectares (approximately 1,500 acres) of

land earlier this year, and expand operations at its laboratory located in Hayward, Calif., including its 20-acre demonstration-scale site in Karratha, Western Australia. Earlier this year, Aurora Algae completed construction of its demonstration-scale facility in Karratha and is fully operational. The company says its ponds have been specifically designed to be energy efficient, thereby increasing the economical feasibility of algae production. The Karratha facility features six one-acre raceway ponds, four 400-square meter ponds and four 50-square meter ponds. In June, MWH and John Holland were awarded the initial engineering contract for design and construction of Aurora Algae’s facility in Maitland. This facility will be equipped to manufacture algaebased biomass for production of sustainable products in the nutraceutical, pharmaceutical, aquaculture and renewable energy markets.

Solazyme Inc. has signed a framework agreement to form a joint-venture with Bunge Global Innovation LLC, the agribusiness giant and sugarcane company based in Brazil. The goal is to design and build a facility to produce renewable oils in time for the 2013 sugarcane harvest. Solazyme said it will leverage its own technology with “Bunge’s sugarcane milling and natural oil processing capabilities” to produce a triglyceride-based oil for chemical applications. Both parties will contribute to financing the project, and through the agreement, Solazyme will receive additional compensation for its technology contributions. The facility will be located at an existing mill site in Brazil and will produce roughly 100,000 metric tons of renewable oil. Solazyme’s technology is based on the use of heterotrophic algae strains that can thrive in the dark. The microalgae used by the company is placed in industrial fermenters and fed sugars to increase the volume of oil present in the strains. One of the company’s products,

business briefs

a luxury skincare product called Algenist, recently got a boost when Solazyme signed an agreement with a United Kingdom beauty retailer, Space NK, to carry the product in 60 stores. The Algenist product contains an antiaging acid called alguronic acid. In addition to Space NK’s use of the Solazyme product, companies in the U.S., including QVC and The Shopping Channel, and Canada offer the product. Evodos BV, an algae technology developer based in Netherlands, believes the company’s spiral plate centrifuge created for the harvesting of algae will give algae harvesting a positive energy balance. Tests show that the centrifugal system can run below 1 kWh per cubic meter, costing roughly €0.08 per kilo of dry material produced. The core of the technology is based on improvements to the centrifugal system including separation efficiency that the company explains is related to the short distance a particle has to travel in the unit, the extended delay time that particle has to travel and the use of a Y-flow approach, which has no counter flows. To separate the algal biomass in the unit from the water, the biomass is spun in the unit and the collected particles settle into a spiral rack, which forms a solid cake. When the solid cake becomes too thick, the ends of the plates are removed and a sliding drum containing the spiral plates and the solid biomass is pulled up, out of the unit for the removal of the cake. Evodos believes its system performs well because any free liquid is removed before the cake is discharged. Dublin, Ohio-based Independence BioProducts has been issued a patent for its open pond algae production system. The patent covers methods and systems for growing algae in water with a heating source, drying the algae with a heat source, and as an alternative to a heat source, partially covering the body of water where the algae is grown. Accord-

ing to the company, heat recovery systems, algae processing systems and covers are also included under the patent. IBP’s technology features a system that heats algae ponds with heat recovered from power plants and other manufacturing facilities. Information released by the company states that the system is designed to maintain water temperatures within precise temperature ranges in order to optimize algae production. The method prevents ponds located in cold weather regions from freezing over, allowing algae to be cultivated year round. The method to dry the algae also utilizes waste heat sourced from adjacent power plants or industrial facilities. IBP operates a demonstration project adjacent to a power plant in Shadyside, Ohio, and is working to develop commercial operations in Texas.

Life Technologies Corp. introduced its GeneArt Algae Engineering Kits, the first commercially available genetic modification and expression systems for algal organisms Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and Synechococcus elongatus. Until now, researchers have relied on colleagues and culture collections to obtain cells, vectors, cloning tools, and protocols for working with these important model organisms. Cells from these sources often ship on agar slants that could become contaminated and have low survival rates. Additionally, vectors from uncontrolled sources could contain undocumented changes, leading to further wasted time. The GeneArt Chlamydomonas Engineering Kit and GeneArt Synechoccus

Engineering Kits combine optimized cloning and expression vectors, frozen cells, and simple protocols to create the first standardized, complete system for algae research and metabolic engineering. Guaranteed purity and standardized cells and vectors ensure reliable results and fast ramp up to bioproduction scale. The kits allow researchers to create transformed algal cells in just seven to 10 days, standardize experiments with genetically consistent frozen cell stocks, save time required for strain optimization and transition to bioproduction, and rest easy with guaranteed strain viability and purity. OpenAlgae, a Houston-based algae developer formed in 2008 with help from the University of Texas, released its algae processor and accompanying technology this summer. With help from UT’s Center for Electromechanics, the company came up with a lysing process that is used to separate the lipids out of the algae cells. Over the past two years, the team of UT researchers, with the help of OpenAlgae, has run tests on the processing unit that features the lysing electromechanical unit on a dual axle modular trailer, processing roughly 30,000 gallons of algae water. The difference between the OpenAlgae approach, the company said, is that this process doesn’t require a drying step for the algal biomass, a hexane extraction step or a centrifugation step. While electroporation is used as a process to open cells for genetic modifications, this process instead permanently opens the cells, essentially killing them. UT, which owns half of the technology, developed the electromechanical process for extracting additional sugar out of sugarcane and sugar beets. Share your industry briefs To be included in Business Briefs, send information (including photos and logos if available) to: Industry Briefs, Algae Technology & Business, 308 Second Ave. N., Suite 304, Grand Forks, ND 58203. You may also fax information to (701) 746-8385, or e-mail it to rkotrba@ Please include your name and telephone number in all correspondence. fall 2011 | 15


Demonstrability Field Engineer Thiruvenkadam Viswanathan demonstrates the touch-screen automation system used at the BioProcess Algae facility.


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They Are


Why some algae companies thrive and some don’t survive By Luke Geiver

Before Congress left for summer recess, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., visited the New Mexico State University campus where he announced his plans to introduce legislation that could change the future of algae-based energy forever. He told the crowd that Congress shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers regarding advanced biofuels technologies, and more specifically, that his bill would revamp RFS2, essentially opening the door for algae-based advanced biofuels to qualify for the cellulosic ethanol carve-out within RFS2. “This bill simply puts all advanced biofuels on a level playing field,” he said during the announcement, “and lets the market determine which emerging technologies prove most useful.” Udall’s statements contained no surprises. Given that his state represents one of the true algae cultivation hotbeds on the planet and the tradition within the algae industry to proclaim algae’s potential, his efforts to alleviate policy restrictions to that potential seemed right in line. Udall’s belief in the potential of algaebased bioenergy seems to reflect the approach taken by many past and present algae companies, but the status quo for building and maintaining algae companies is changing. The days of seeking big funding through large claims based on even larger unproven visions of algae utilization —at least those that attract venture or other solidified funding—are over. If Udall is right and the market will decide who makes it and who doesn’t, then proven technology and established business teams are more important now than ever, given the array of government-led peer reviews of funded algae projects and the weak climate for investments that may not pay off for another five to 10 years. But if Udall’s bill is ultimately successful and the market, as he might hope, does push for algae-based biofuel, then there are some companies on the brink of breaking out. And for those that are further away, there is a lot to learn from the firms that have established themselves as real players—and from the companies that haven’t.

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Brewing Revenue Alltech will use algae as a food additive for its well established animal feed product line. 18 |

energy law firm, shares the same thoughts on the validity of multiple product approaches. “It is too significant to simply be viewed as a waste on the expense side,” Marrapese says. Coincidentally, Algae-Wise and Heckman Heifetz says that some Keller LLP attorney Martha companies have gotten Marrapese says into financial trouble companies working to produce algae for because they tried to nonfood applications over-pursue oppor- face fewer regulatory hurdles. tunities far from their core strategies for success. In some cases, nonessential technology platforms have been shelved, he says, or at least scaled back, all to ramp up scale-up operations. “All this reflects both the need to secure funding to sustain operations, as well as the hard realization that the industry is, by and large, in too early a stage to be able to sustain many ‘nice to haves’ at the expense of ‘must haves.’”

Small but Steady

Even with a tight capital market and a new push required both from public and private funding sources to see real results, there are also companies that are just hitting the scene. In Texas, OpenAlgae has based its algae strategy on a lysing oil extraction process system. In Florida, Agrisys believes it has the means to operate a large algae refinery on the promise of a “proton pulse” oil extraction unit that operates using the same premise as ultrasonic cavitation. In Arizona, Algae Biosci-


Some algae businesses specialize in cultivation, while others focus on strain selection or enhancement, or harvesting, or dewatering, or other important aspects of algae utilization, but if they don’t fall in line with the perspective of Peter Heifetz of Heifetz BioConsulting, they might end up in the category of unknowns and bygones, or failures (such as the failed solar company Solyndra). Heifetz says the industry has been characterized in the past year or so by the maturation and transition to scaling. “This represents a substantial change from research and platform technology-driven approaches to ones focused on product enablement and process validation.” And, he adds, those changes have come from requirements spearheaded by the U.S. DOE and the USDA that follow large project management principles and oversight, in particular, stimulus projects that have very specific reporting and tracking requirements. Some companies have shown progress and met the requirements. In February, the DOE held an Integrated Biorefinery peer review, and two algae companies, Sapphire Energy and Algenol Biofuels Inc. were required to provide updates on the status of their work. Many other companies, however, have made major achievements in the past year. Alltech Inc. purchased a $14 million fermentation facility and has since begun working on algae cultivation for use in value-added products. OriginOil has made several substantiated announcements, including the formation of a partnership with MBD Energy that will allow MBD to utilize Origin Oil’s patented algae ex-

traction system. Bioprocess Algae opened an algae processing facility at an existing ethanol plant, and did so in the presence of USDA’s Secretary Tom Vilsack. Aurora Algae completed the construction of its demonstration-scale algae production facility. Solix BioSystems received additional funding and has become so confident in its algae growth system that the company even changed its name from simply Solix. And then there are companies such as PetroAlgae and Solazyme that have filed for initial public offerings, indicating that they are ready to succeed at some capacity. According to Kiki Wang, an associate at Chrysalix, an investment firm with a stated focus to invest in and support “game-changing technology companies that are helping to build the new energy economy—what we like to call the Green Elephants of the future,” the company states on its website, there are a number of reasons why some companies (unlike those mentioned above) haven’t made significant progress in the past year or so. Those include over-reliance on their technology innovations and a lack of cultivation knowledge, dewatering or harvesting. The economics, she says, can be far from expectation once these associated costs are taken into account. And, in addition to those reasons for failure, she points to the new trend that has helped the Solazymes or Sapphires succeed in the near-term. Companies that aren’t around today, she says, didn’t make enough push to optimize the market value of all the products, not just the fuel or the biomass. Martha Marrapese of Keller and Heckman LLP, a Washington D.C.-based science and


Who’s Who

Special Guest USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, left, toured Green Plains Renewable Energy’s ethanol plant where Bioprocess Algae has co-located its demo-scale algae production units.


ences Inc. has formed based on the potential of an underground supply of brackish water that will allow the company to efficiently grow algae for omega-3 fatty acid production. A New Zealand company has plans to build a demonstration-scale facility that will showcase a biomass and algae combination process to make liquid fuels, and Australia-based algae company, Algae.Tec, has started making algae growth units at a U.S. manufacturing facility in Atlanta. A Netherlands-based company, Evodos, has unveiled a new spiral plate harvesting system that creates an algae sludge, and at the University of Arkansas, an algae research team is currently being filmed for its own reality television show based on‌algae. As those companies (and reality TV teams) show, even if bioenergy consultants like Heifetz feel the current climate for algae companies is predicated on those companies to show results, the influx of unproven companies is still going strong. To help them out, he has a few ideas. Investors are interested in how a company understands its own risks and claims and, more importantly, what plans they have to mitigate those risks. “Consequently, a company should have a great value proposition, protectable technology, upside for additional products beyond the initial go-to-market case, and commitment and enthusiasm for the technology and the opportunities—but all this tempered by a strong dose of realism,â€? he says. For Marrapese, success can come from the obvious efforts, such as securing financing and showing early-stage success, and even getting creative to find an interim product to generate funds for on-going development. But, the success of a value-added product line isn’t all about the money. According to Marrapese, value-added products make sense in some cases because of what they don’t do. “In many cases, these interim uses do not have as high a regulatory hurdle as fuels,â€? Marrapese says. “A similar approach was taken some years back in the case of aspartame,â€? she explains. “The first clearance the company secured was for table-top sweeteners. In a second round, they received clearance for use in desert mixes. The revenue from these uses then helped to fund the additional data and time required to ultimately file for and gain approval for carbonated beverages.â€? Wang also shares some of the same thoughts on ways companies can make it. “Although we as a VC fund with a clean-en-

ergy focus want fuel as the primary product,� she says, “coproducts management is also crucial,� adding that a company they will consider looking into must have a high-performance growing system and a feasible downstream processing solution, regardless of whether that company purchased the technology or designed it in-house. The best advice for companies that want to be around one, two, or five years from now might come from Marrapese. She says, among many things, an algae company can avoid that popular question “Where are they now?� by

having a realistic appreciation for what they can accomplish with the capital they have: by looking into photobioreactors that pose fewer issues than an open pond; utilizing the latest in strain development; or creating a business strategy that includes achievable interim targets that can generate reasonable revenue. “That is a better strategy than shooting for the moon.� Why? Because, “if you miss the moon, you are lost in space.� Author: Luke Geiver Associate Editor, Algae Technology & Business (701) 738-4944




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The Final Frontier Studying algae growth in space can have profound impacts on the long-term future of space exploration and quality of life on Earth. $OJDH,QGXVWU\8SGDWH PHOTO: NASA

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A Big for Algae


South Dakota State University researchers develop an algae production system for use in space … and on Earth By Erin Voegele

Single cell photosynthetic organisms, such as blue-green algae, could play an important role in the future of our nation’s space program. Not only could they be used to supply valuable oxygen to fuel life-support systems, genetically modified microorganisms could also be used to produce long-chain hydrocarbons for use as fuel or as building blocks for plastics and other needed materials. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration recently awarded a grant of $750,000 to a project led by South Dakota State University. Together with a variety of collaborators, the SDSU researchers will develop methods to use blue-green algae—also known as cyanobacteria—to produce, fuels, chemicals, oxygen, and cleaned water from carbon dioxide, sunlight and wastewater. While the technology could provide obvious benefits for America’s space program, the technologies that are being developed will also be applicable here on Earth. According to Bill Gibbons, a professor in the biology and microbiology departments at SDSU and scientific principal investigator for the research, the project has two main objectives. “One is microbial engineering,” he says. “In that what we are doing is changing the metabolic pathway of the cynobacteria that we are using from producing storage carbohydrates to producing long-chain hydrocarbons or alcohols. The second aspect is the system engineering. That involves developing a re-circulating photobioreactor integrated with a separation system, and then linking that with an ability to get light [into the system].” The grant, which was awarded through NASA’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), is actually supporting a three-year project proposal submitted by the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. However, the majority of the work will be carried out by SDSU. Gibbons specifies David Salem and Robb Winter from the School of Mines will be contributing in the area of polymers. Their area of focus is polymer chemistry, he says. “They will be working with us on polymers and manufacturing the polymers that we would use to construct the biobioreactors,” and how other technologies will be integrated with the system. Dieg Sandoval from the Oglala Lakota College will also be contributing to the project. “He is going to be working on the analytical side, so he’ll have students who come here during the summers and learn what we are doing in terms of engineering, and the organisms, and engineering of the systems,” Gibbons says. “They will also assist us on the analytical side throughout the rest of the year. We’ll be fall 2011 | 21


Microbial Engineering

Gibbons notes that the name of the photosynthetic microorganism his team is

working with is slightly misleading. Although commonly referred to as blue-green algae, cyanobacteria is technically not algae. Most living organisms can be grouped into one of two categories; prokaryotic or eukaryotic. According to Gibbons, bacteria—including cyanobacteria—are prokaryotic organisms while algae are eukaryotic organisms. The eukaryotic group, which also includes fungi, plants, animals and humans, represent much more complicated systems, and are much more difficult to genetically modify. One of the reasons our team has chosen to work with cyanobacteria is that photosynthetic bacteria is much easier to genetically manipulate, Gibbons says. They also grow much more quickly than traditional algae, so their productivity has the potential to be higher. “We are going to do engineering on the cyanobacteria and then we’ll optimize its performance using directed evolution,” Gibbons says. “Hopefully we’ll have a very productive and robust strain. One of the challenges is that microorganisms can be very finicky to work with. One of the challenges in working with all microbes is getting them to the point where they are hearty enough to use on an industrial scale.” While traditional algae processes aim to grow algae, recover the algae cells, recover the oil from the cells, and then use a biorefining technique to convert the oil into a fuel or chemical product, Gibbons says the technology being developed by his team is much


Metabolic Engineering SDSU researchers are developing a strain of cyanobacteria that could be used in space to produce fuels and oxygen. 22 |

simpler. “We are basically bypassing all those steps by having the microbe produce [finished products] directly,” he continues. The modified and optimized blue-green algae that the team develops will be capable of secreting long-chain alcohols or hydrocarbons directly into the culture fluid. Since the products the team is targeting are not soluble in water, Gibbons says phase separation can be used to recover the products.

System Engineering


able to send them samples of the culture fluid (to test)”. A fourth educational institution will also be taking part in the project. Students and teachers from Flandreau Indian School will be participating in the project during the summer months by working in the research labs. The school’s superintendent Betty Belkham will be coordinating the internship program. According to Gibbons, the hope is that participation in the project will help encourage more Native American students to become interested in continuing their science educations. “Both the Oglala Lakota and Fladrew Indian School efforts are research efforts, but they are also directed at trying to explain this opportunity, showcase this opportunity, and build a pipeline of Native American students to be interested in pursuing this as a career, because we see this as not just the application in space, but on earth as well,” Gibbons says. Additional partners in the project include SDSU researchers Ed Drake, Gary Anderson, Zhengrong Gu, Kasiviswanathan Muthukumarappan, Xingzhong Yan and Ruanbao Zhou. Raven Industries’ Gary Kolbasuk and ICM Inc.’s Doug Rivers will also contribute to the manufacturing of the photobioreactor, working on process integration for Earth applications.

In addition to engineering a microbe to excrete fuels, the project also involves the design of a photobioreactor system that will be used to cultivate the cyanobacteria. “In the space application, we are looking at using optical fibers that would gather the light and transmit it to the photobioreactors, and then disperse it,” Gibbons says. The patent-pending process, referred to as wavelength shifting technology, uses a chemical process to change the wavelengths of ultraviolet, near infrared and infrared light into photosynthetically active wavelengths. “What we are doing is taking a broad spectrum of radiation that is in the sunlight and converting some of those unusable wavelengths into photosynthetically active wavelengths.” Regarding space application, the design of the photobioreactor will also need to address separation loops, a method to bubble in CO2-enriched air and a method to pull off the oxygen. “One of the features that we are looking at for the space application is how to separate the CO2 and the oxygen that exhausts through the system,” Gibbons says. “The algae won’t use 100 percent of the CO2 that is being bubbled into the reactor, so on the outlet side you will have oxygen that they produce, plus some residual CO2. It would be nice to be able to separate those two so you could have pure oxygen going back into the crew compartment.” The initial stage of the NASA-funded project, which officially kicks off Nov. 1, will tie these existing research components together. “Each of these technologies is being worked on kind of separately right now,” Gibbons says. “In the initial stages, we will be putting together a bench-scale system that will integrate all these technologies together.” He estimates the bench-scale development will take between a year and a year-and-a-half. The next step will be to develop a 50- to 100-gallon, pilot-scale photobioreactor system. Once


operational, Gibbons says the pilot system will be used to complete material, energy and cost evaluations. “Of course, there would be another scale-up step before it would go commercial, but that’s kind of where we want to be at the end of three years,� he says.

Applications in Space, and on Earth

The technologies and processes developed though this project could have important implications both in space and here on Earth. According to Gibbons, the cynobacteria strain SDSU researchers are engineering will be employed in a unique photobioreactor system on Earth that has been developed by a team led by Bioengineer Researcher Jonathan Trent at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The technology, referred to as Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae, involves using biobioreactors in the ocean to grow algae. Secondary treated wastewater is pumped into the reactor, which features an osmotic membrane. “It will actually pull the fresh water out of the waste water, so it ends up releasing clean water into the ocean, keeping the nutrients inside for the algae to grow,� Gibbons says. “As the fluid passes from one [photobioreactor] floating out in the ocean to the next, it procures algae cells.� While the system was designed to employ traditional algae, Gibbons says his team will work with Trent to see if the photobioreactor system could be used to cultivate the microbe engineered at SDSU. According to Gibbons, the research team is also working with a few local ethanol plants to evaluate the possibility of utilizing their CO2 to grow cyanobacteria in a photobioreactor on Earth. While the photobioreactor system under development by the team will have obvious applications in space, Gibbons stresses that the wavelength shifting technology could be applicable on Earth as well. “One of the big advantages of this technology is that it improves the efficiency of light transmission,� he says. “The other side benefit that we get out of it is reduced heat buildup, because we are taking some of the infrared radiation, which can otherwise actually be a problem in a greenhouse [or photobioreactor].� They can get too warm, which can stunt the growth of the algae or microbe culture. “Regardless if it’s on Earth or in space, [the system] will help us reduce heat buildup while converting that energy into photosyntheticlly useable energy.�

If established on a different planet or the moon, Gibbons notes the photobioreactor system would actually be located underground. “You’d gather the light on the surface with solar collectors, transmit it through these light fibers to the underground protected location where you could maintain the temperature and wouldn’t have to worry about all the other issues [associated with locating] on the surface,� he adds. Although Gibbons and his team are working with cyanobacteria rather than algae, he says that the photobioreactor system de-

veloped as part of the project could also be used to cultivate algae. The wavelength shifting technology could also be applicable to algae production systems. According to Gibbons, the technologies that result from this project are expected to be available for licensing once patented. “We are definitely interested in and willing to work with people on using those technologies.� Author: Erin Voegele Associate Editor, Algae Technology & Business (701) 540-6986






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fall 2011 | 23


Pouring It On Agrilife has worked with numerous algae research teams, both from the private and public sector.


24 |


Super The Making of a


Is a lifetime of research and an established algae company enough? By Luke Geiver

In the late 1980s Joe Chappell failed in his attempts to capture the genetic blueprint of an ancient strain of algae known as Botryococcus braunii. In the late ‘90s, he didn’t have the funding. In the mid-2000s, Chappell still wasn’t ready to give up on his work with the ancient strain, and now, with new funding and reinvigorated efforts, he has successfully completed the genetic blueprint work he had started almost 30 years earlier as a member of a biotechnology team at Amoco Oil. Today, Chappell is a professor of agriculture at the University of Kentucky and, although he says his team isn’t the only one that has worked on the strain, he says no one else has accomplished what his team finally has. “Back then,” Chappell says of his days working on that Amoco biotech team, “what was really evident from a lot of pieces of evidence was that there were very few organisms that could be pinpointed to be major contributors of oil and coal shale deposits around the world.” In the 1950s, he explains many of the petrochemical companies were looking at this strain of algae because of evidence that linked the strain to oil and coal shale deposits, but also because of one major aspect of the strain: oil content. “The task that we started back in the ‘80s was to try and capture the genetic blueprint as to how this very special oil is produced in this algae.” Tim Devarenne, a UK graduate who worked in Chappell’s lab and is now a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Texas A&M University, might provide the best way to think about Botryococcus. “It can reach up to 80 percent dry weight of oil,” he explains. “That is an obvious advantage; it can produce a lot of oil.” As Devarenne shows, not only does the strain entice researchers by the amount of oil it can produce before genetic modification even enters the picture, but as Chappell points out, it is also high-quality oil. But, the true benefits of working with this particular ancient strain might not even be linked to the potential amount of oil it can produce when compared to others. Ask Devarenne what the strain has meant to his professional development and he can tell you of two unique projects involving the strain that his team at Texas A&M are working on. Chappell and his work have also drawn the attention of Sapphire Energy, but ultimately, the true significance of the strain might instead be linked to its potential to add value to terrestrial plants—think switchgrass injected with algae oil. The USDA has already granted funding to Chappell and his team to make that happen. So, those accomplishments Chappell says only he and his team have made? On top of besting those goals, they’ve gone one huge step further and transferred that gene to terrestrial plants such as tobacco, making a tobacco plant that produces

fall 2011 | 25


leaves coated with that same oil that has been around for centuries. To this point in his research, Chappell and his team have taken the genetic blueprint of Botryococcus and implanted it into tobacco, the “white rat” of green chemistry as he calls it. “We have a rough economic model that we are using as to how much of this oil a plant would have to produce on a certain amount of acres to make it viable and competitive,” he says, “and we think we’ve gotten very close to that threshold.” To do that, the team has genetically modified the tobacco plants to produce the oils via photosynthesis, a process algae also uses, only in a different biochemical mechanism. “We’ve taken the basic knowledge of how photosynthetic machinery works in plants and basically plugged in this algal biosynthetic capacity into this organelle of the terrestrial plants.” After implanting the algal machinery into the production capabilities within the photosynthesis


26 |


The Making of a Super Plant

Oiled Up Botryococcus braunii can be traced back as a main contributing source for the fossil oil used today.

process, Chappell says they made the process to create a coating of oil on the surface of the leaves. At this point in their research, the team has used chemical extraction methods to remove the oil for testing, but eventually, he says, the idea is to mimic processes utilized in the sorghum industry, allowing rollers to “squeeze out the syrup.” In their case, he says, “you would

pull the leaves through the rollers and it would squeeze off the oils.” While the team is currently using the tobacco plant for testing, Chappell says directives set forth by the USDA have pushed the work into utilizing energy crops such as switchgrass or sorghum. “That was our proposal,” he says, to have switchgrass produce the oil and after the oil is extracted, the biomass is left. “We are an added value to the current switchgrass uses,” he says, “but I would hope that our value-added commodity, this oil, is of equal—if not greater—value then the biomass.” After finishing his Ph.D. at Kentucky, Devarenne ended up at Texas A&M, where he has taken on his own projects related to Botryococcus. “One thing that we are interested in is the enzymes responsible for making the oils that make the biofuels,” he says. His team has set out to investigate and obtain the crystal structure of those enzymes so “we can, on a very finite molecular level, find how these enzymes function and then improve on them in relation to what Joe wants to do in putting them in land plants.” Devarenne and his team have been working on this for roughly five years, he says, but it’s not the only ancient algae strain work they are doing. In addition to the enzymatic structure diagnosis, the team is also working on a spectroscopy laser that will allow them to shine a beam on the live algal cell and determine where the lipids locate themselves within the cell. “Basically the molecules react to the laser light and you detect where specific oils are in the cell, and we try and use that information to understand how oil is biosynthesized in the cells.” As a true sign that this particular ancient strain of algae still has huge ramifications today and into the future, another use of that laser detection system shows just how important this work could be.


“In theory,” Devarenne says, “you could also use the laser to detect, if you shine the laser on an algae pond, the amount of oil in a pond, and say that the cells are ready to harvest.”

Big Time Partners

It might be easy to say that the most important aspect of Chappell’s work is directly related to how well those terrestrial plants can produce lipids, but his work with Sapphire Energy shows that for researchers and companies, there is a lot to learn from their work together. According to Chappell, after reading about his work with genetic engineering in plants and organisms that are photosynthetic, Sapphire gave him a call. “They asked if they could come for a visit, so they came for an afternoon and we chatted and the relationship evolved from there.” Now, Chappell is on the scientific advisory board at the San Diego-based company, and Sapphire is also helping to fund his research. “Sapphire Energy’s commitment to commercializing algae oil for fuels requires technical innovations in many disparate areas,” Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs says, adding that, “Scientific collaborations provide an opportunity to more efficiently carry out projects in the basic sciences, which ultimately enable the necessary technical innovations.” Zenk says the company has an extensive search process and set of criteria for working with outside researchers. “In Joe’s case, he is a luminary in the field of engineering hydrocarbon accumulation in photosynthetic organisms.” As for Xun Wang, vice president of research and development for Sapphire, the work in Joe’s lab matches up well with the firm because a significant portion of its R&D efforts are directed towards altering carbon flux towards the hydrocarbon pool. “The pioneering work being done in the Chappell lab involves the understanding of a major metabolic pathway,” Wang says, “the isoprenoid biosynthetic pathway.” Wang adds that this basic knowledge Sapphire might gain from working with Chappell “is a necessary first step in the modification and improvement of algae as a fuel crop.” The partnership, Joe says, “is absolutely exciting.” But it’s not the first time a big-name company and Chappell have worked together. He has worked with Amoco Oil, and maintains a working relationship with BP and ExxonMobil. And, from his experience, he says, there is a huge difference between all the com-

panies. “Working with Sapphire,” he explained, “is a bit more enjoyable than working with the large 800-pound gorilla because you sort of have a feeling that they are going to make a lot of magic happen for them to be successful.” Amoco, however, was like a lot of big chemical companies, he explained: “There are so many layers, so you never quite know where you are in their hierarchy.” The partnership with Sapphire isn’t all smiles though either. Chappell says it feels like you always have your finger on the pulse of the company, and Sapphire requires biweekly updates on the research. “A two-week timeline for doing science, that is real short, but it creates some excitement for the group.” The partnership has been working out so well at times, however, that Chappell says upon one visit from Sapphire researchers and executives the company told him they wanted to hire a number of the people working in his lab. Zenk says Sapphire is always looking for the best talent. “Our R&D team looks for passionate and dedicated people with solid training

in the fundamental sciences,” he says. “Joe has proven himself to be fantastic in attracting and training this type of scientist.” For the next five years, it appears those scientist will have the chance to continue working on the oil-to-terrestrial plant work (Chappell estimates that will give him time to complete field trials and optimize the algae strain blueprint for use in switchgrass), unless, of course, they leave for the Sapphire team. As Chappell says, “Sapphire definitely has an interest in the research in my lab. They look at it as the future,” he says. Whether it is based on how to form a major algae firm-to-research laboratory relationship, create the most advanced energy crop to date, or even to witness the completion of a lifetime spent harnessing the potential of a tiny algal strain that’s been around for hundreds of millions of years, there is great interest in all of Joe’s work. Author: Luke Geiver Associate Editor, Algae Technology & Business (701) 738-4944

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Clearing the

Bo ttlenecks A new Netherlands research park aims to overcome obstacles to commercial-scale algae production By Erin Voegele

At first glance, Western Europe may seem like an improbable location for algae research. Researchers at Netherlands-based Wageningen University (WUR), however, are working to overcome obstacles to commercial-scale algae production in an effort to support the region’s biobased economy and enable the production of renewable feedstocks for the country’s vast chemical and industrial complex. On June 17, WUR celebrated the grand opening of its new Algae Production and Research Center (AlgaePARC). According to René Wijffels, a professor of bioprocess engineering at WUR and the scientific director of AlgaePARC, the new research center grew out of ongoing algae research that has taken place at the university. The work began several years ago, Wijffels says, when WUR researchers first began to look at algae production in relation to biofuels. In an effort to determine the economic feasibility of algae production, the team did a cost analysis of existing production techniques, specifically identifying all the technology and cost bottlenecks associated with each type of production system. Several companies became interested in the research, which, along with government support, helped move the project out of the lab and into the field.

Building a Biobased Future Workers at AlgaePARC in the Netherlands work to bring the various production systems online. PHOTO: ERIN VOEGELE, BBI INTERNATIONAL

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Leading the Way René Wijffels, a professor of bioprocess engineering at WUR and the scientific director of AlgaePARC, says the goal of this research is to develop a better, more efficient algae production system.

Once all the bottlenecks preventing scaleup and their solutions are identified, Wijffels says the goal is to integrate the most economically and technically feasible aspects of the various production systems into a more effective technique for algae production. “The major goal is [to find] an economically and sustainable system to produce algae for both chemicals and fuels,” Wijffels says. “I say chemical and fuels because this is our vision; fuels alone will never be economically feasible. You need to make use of the complete, total value of the biomass.” To achieve that value metric, it’s not only about low-cost production, it’s also about the effective and efficient conversion of the biomass that is produced.

The Facilities

A unique aspect of AlgaePARC is that it houses four different pilot-scale algae production technologies, an open pond and three different photobioreactor designs. This will allow researchers to compare and contrast the different systems on a side-by-side basis. The facility also includes three smaller photobioreactors that are used for various research purposes. All the systems are located outdoors. According to Wijffels, the four larger pilot-scale algae production systems repre-

sent existing technologies that are operational today. Each system offers its own advantages and disadvantages, he says. “For example, most experiences [show] that an open pond system is the cheapest to construct, but it is also more sensitive to infections and is less productive,” Wijffels says. “On the other hand, we have closed systems, which have higher productivity, but [often] have higher costs as well. Information on the systems published by WUR says that the four designs will be used to evaluate specific variables, such as mass transfer, light supply and photosynthetic efficiency. What they will do, Wijffels says, is compare those systems to identify what the costs, sustainability issues and bottlenecks are, and what can be done to improve them. “What we believe is, none of those systems will really give the conclusive answer [of the best design for a system], but we would like to understand those bottlenecks in order to make an improved design and construct it to really show that you can do it cheaper, and in a more sustainable way.” According to Wijffels, four large systems will typically be used to grow a single strain of algae under set conditions for an entire year. Smaller systems, located onsite that allow for more flexible research, will be used to


Growing a Culture A small photobioreactor is used to grow algae for transfer into the larger pilot-scale systems at AlgaePARC. 30 |






Comparing Cultivation Techniques AlgaePARC features four pilot-scale algae production systems, including (clockwise from top left) a raceway pond, a horizontal tubular reactor, a vertical stacked tubular reactor, and a flat panel reactor.

test more variables that impact over relatively brief timelines, he says. “There are typically elements [we will study] in combination as laboratory research and small-scale experiments outdoors to find the optimal conditions” for algae growth, Wijffels says. “When we have the optimal conditions, we will apply those conditions in the larger reactors.” While AlgaePARC researchers will work with a few different strains of algae, Wijffels stresses that strain selection is not the goal of this particular research project. “Our strength is in the technology development,” he says. “That’s where we vest in. On the other hand, you cannot work on one single strain.” Strains are important so some screening is done in a number of projects. “On the other hand, we are also looking to collaborations with other groups that [have algae strains] that could be used in our systems.” The project is currently scheduled to be operational for a period of five years. “The ambition is actually to expand in that research so that we can do more,” Wijffels says. “We believe that the whole project or development

There are currently 18 companies that have signed on to support the project, including BASF, Exxon Mobil Corp., Neste Oil Corp., PDX, Saudi Basic Industries Corp., Synthetic Genomics Inc., Drie Wilgen, GEA Westfalia, Nijhuis, Proviron, Simris Alg, Total, DSM, Heliae, Paques, Roquette, Staatsolie Suriname and Unilever. process will take 10 to 15 years.” Wijffels and his team are hopeful the project’s timeline will be expanded to encompass the additional years needed to complete the project, but initial results should be available next year. “Our ambition is to publish the first complete analysis of the systems within one year,” Wijffels says.

Information provided by WUR specifies four goals AlgaePARC is expected to achieve over the next five years. First, the research aims to compare the four different production systems in terms of photosynthetic efficiency, volumetric productivity, energy use, use of nutrients and water availability, robustness and scalability. Second, the project is expected to achieve and maintain a photosynthetic efficiency level of 5 percent, which Wijffels says is five times higher efficiency than current systems offer. Third, the team aims to develop an improved reactor concept or process strategy that significantly reduces costs. Finally, the group is expected to have gathered sufficient information to enable the design of a largescale production facility.

Partners and Industry

Algae produced at AlgaePARC will be put to use for various purposes. According to Wijffels, the details are still being worked out. However, some of the algae biomass will be made available to WUR researchers, where it will be used to assist in the developfall 2011 | 31


ment of biorefining technologies. Companies that have partnered with AlgaePARC will also have access to algae that is produced. There are currently 18 companies that have signed on to support the project, including BASF, Exxon Mobil Corp., Neste Oil Corp., PDX, Saudi Basic Industries Corp., Synthetic Genomics Inc., Drie Wilgen, GEA Westfalia, Nijhuis, Proviron, Simris Alg, Total, DSM, Heliae, Paques, Roquette, Staatsolie Suriname and Unilever. According to Wijffels, companies of all

kinds are participating in AlgaePARC, including those in the fuels, chemicals, and food industries, as well as technology developers. He adds that one goal was to not have the research supported by a single fuel company or a single algae company.â&#x20AC;? His group sees this project as precompetitive research that many parties can benefit from, he says. Wijffels explains that the companies involved in AlgaePARC do provide research funding, but do not actively participate in the research program. â&#x20AC;&#x153;The research program is

Author: Erin Voegele Associate Editor, Algae Technology & Business (701) 540-6986


Untitled-2 1

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executed by us,â&#x20AC;? he says. The companies do play a role in forming the objectives for the research, and are given access to the results. In addition, they will be given priority when patents that result from the research are licensed. Although AlgaePARC is located in the Netherlands, Wijffels stresses that the research itself has a global scope. The companies we are collaborating with are not only Dutch companies, and not only European companies, he says. â&#x20AC;&#x153;We also have companies from the U.S. participating in this project.â&#x20AC;? Ultimately, Wijffels says he thinks his region will benefit from the availability of algae biomass, but will likely not be a largescale producer. â&#x20AC;&#x153;I donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t see the Netherlands as a huge producer of microalgae because our land is too small and our climate is not good enough,â&#x20AC;? he says. â&#x20AC;&#x153;But a lot of trade is taking place in the Netherlands. The food sector and the chemical sectorâ&#x20AC;Śneed end products from algae. So, in that respect, microalgae will play an important role in the Netherlands. We may not produce it in the Netherlands, but rather process microalgae that are produced elsewhere.â&#x20AC;? As for AlgaePARC itself, Wijffels says his team hopes the project will continue to expand and grow. He says he expects that life-cycle analysis will be used as a tool to help give direction to the research. â&#x20AC;&#x153;We also would like to look at the whole chain of production, including harvesting and extraction technologies,â&#x20AC;? he adds. In addition, there are refining technologies the team would like to explore. According to Wijffels, WUR is also has research programs focused on genetic modification for creating more productive algae strains. The hope is these disparate research focuses will come together to create a better solution. â&#x20AC;&#x153;Itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s not only scaling up,â&#x20AC;? Wijffels says. â&#x20AC;&#x153;You really have to integrate the different disciplines in the field, and harvesting and refining is absolutely a part of that.â&#x20AC;?

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Worked Up Yuanhui Zhang, left, and his post doctoral students Mitchell “Mitch” Minarick, center, and Guo Yui are helping rethink algae’s magnanimous potential. $OJDH,QGXVWU\8SGDWH PHOTO: ACES-ITCS, DAVID RIECKS

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Waste Not

University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign researchers transform animal wastes and algae into biocrude By Bryan Sims

Could algae and biowaste be the next black gold?

Yuanhui Zhang believes it very well could be. Since 1996, the professor in agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign, has successfully converted materials such as swine manure and food processing waste using a thermochemical conversion route, called hydrothermal liquefaction, into biocrude oil. It wasn’t until the past few years, however, that Zhang and his team focused research on utilizing algae cultivated on wastewater to be used as a feedstock for conversion into biocrude oil. “We find that algae is nicer to work with,” Zhang tells Algae Technology & Business. Currently, the majority of algae-to-biofuel research is almost exclusively focused on strains with high-lipid content and extracting those oils for biodiesel production. While that area of research may be gaining traction as a viable route for producing biofuel, algae with high-lipid content typically have low-biomass productivity because high-lipid production can be associated with stress conditions, such as nutrient deprivation, which can reduce photosynthetic efficiency and biomass growth. To that end, Zhang and his team of researchers theorize that algae-to-biofuel strategies that can utilize low-lipid algae hold significant advantages in large-scale production and can better facilitate synergistic combinations with wastewater treatment and carbon capture. In addition to low-lipid algae and swine manure, other feedstocks tested by Zhang and his team via the HTL process include sawdust, garbage and sewage sludge.

fall 2011 | 35



High-Moisture Fuel Zhang and his students use high-moisture biomass such as swine manure or algae in the hydrothermal liquefaction process to create biocrude.

“We’re converting, not extracting, and therefore utilizing the low-lipid algae,” Zhang says. “That’s very promising because usually low-lipid algae can grow faster.” He adds that while cultivating algae for its high-lipid content can be achieved, the process is typically time-consuming and can, at times, be costly. “This is a huge bottleneck,” he says. According to Zhang, the crux of his approach is to mimic nature’s thermochemical process by producing a biobased version of fossil-based crude oil that naturally forms beneath the Earth’s crust over hundreds of millions years and compress that time into hours or minutes. “Crude fossil-based oil is derived from algae and diatoms,” Zhang explains. “My research is moving towards the engineering of a process that can reproduce this process and make our fossil fuels renewable using biowaste and algae. Now, our big challenge is, can we produce enough?” According to data produced by Zhang $OJDH,QGXVWU\8SGDWH and his team, the entire process looks promising.

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How it Works, and Advantages

Algal biomass presents the opportunity to employ many potential routes for the conversion into biofuels, including hydrothermal liquefaction. During HTL, high-moisture biomass is typically subjected to elevated temperatures, 482 to 662 degrees Fahrenheit, and pressures of 1,450 to 2,900 pounds per square inch (psi), and

Process Flow Hydrothermal liquefaction is a specific type of thermochemical pathway used to break down biomass such as algae into biocrude oil. source: UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS

breaks down and reforms the chemical building blocks into a biocrude oil. At these temperatures and pressures, water becomes a highly reactive medium that promotes the breakdown and cleavage of chemical bonds that facilitate the reformation of biological molecules. As the HTL process continues, the monomer units are further cleaved and broken into smaller fragment molecules. During fragmentation, the goal is to remove oxygen and other heteroatoms such as nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorous that leave behind the initial carbon and hydrogen atoms in the form of low-molecular-weight compounds. This process maximizes the energy content of the biocrude oil and increases the value and ability to refine the final biocrude oil product. The primary advantage of using an HTL process on wet algal biomass for conversion into biocrude oil, according to Zhang, is that since water acts as a beneficial aqueous reaction medium, the process is capable of bypassing the energy-intensive and costly step of drying incoming feedstock. In fact, he says the process works better if water is present in the biomass. “With the HTL process, we can directly process the wet feedstock that still contains 80 percent water with 20 percent solids,” Zhang says. “Many of the solid-to-liquid separation technologies commonly used today can’t compete with that.” According to lab-scale experiments conducted by Zhang and his team, they’ve successfully developed an HTL technology that converts 70 percent of volatile solids in swine manure on a dry mass basis into biocrude oil, with heating values between 32 and 38 megajules per kilogram, which is equal to 75 and 90 percent of the heating value of petroleum crude oil heating value. Depending on the feedstock, the resulting biocrude oil is shown to have a heating value comparable to that of bunker crude oil and can be burned in boilers or upgraded and refined into higher value fuel or chemical intermediates. “It has a low quality at this point, but it has high heating values—higher than ethanol—because of how we treat it,” Zhang says. “There are lots of impurities. We need a lot more research to deal with how to upgrade this biocrude oil into more useful end products like gasoline, diesel or biojet fuels. If I produce a lot of biocrude oil, the


oil industry has the capabilities to upgrade it, even if it’s low quality.” The energy recovery ratio, as defined by the energy output of the HTL biocrude oil compared to the process energy input, is 3-to-1 at lab scale and 11-to-1 when heat exchangers are included in a pilot-scale HTL reactor scenario. Zhang has also performed HTL conversion of algae and cyanobacteria to biocrude oil without the use of catalysts; however, Zhang says he’d consider integrating catalysts if they can improve the process to run more efficiently. “It all depends how good the reaction is,” he says. “We can do it without catalysts, but maybe a catalyst can make the process better.” Existing algal species such as Chlorella and Spirulina were mostly used in lab experiments and were shown to efficiently be converted into biocrude oil, according to Zhang, but he says the use of a mixture of algal species, including cyanobacteria, are in consideration to be integrated in future production trials. “We hope some new species will be further developed, like genetically modified algal species,” Zhang says. “We found quite a spectrum of mixtures collected from a wastewater treatment plant works well.”

Full Circle

Zhang’s work using the HTL pathway on algal and other wastes for the production of biocrude oil is simply one spoke within a wheel of sustainability that aims to integrate sound principles of waste treatment, water cleaning and carbon dioxide sequestration into one closed-loop system; a synergistic process he calls “E2 Energy” (EnvironmentEnhancing Energy) that brings two rival components—energy production and environmental protection—together to complement rather than compete with each other. “That’s my vision,” Zhang says, “to use our wastewater from animal farms, cities, municipalities and so forth because we need to treat used wastewater anyway and algae is a good medium to uptake the nutrients from used wastewater. It’s also good at capturing carbon, and then we can convert the carbon later into hydrocarbons, which is the biocrude oil we need and, in the meantime, clean and recycle the wastewater back into the system.”

With help from different sources of grants by the state of Illinois, the federal government and the National Pork Producers Council, Zhang says he intends to seek out the many unanswered scientific questions that linger in his research. The university has filed patents on the technology. “We can get the oil but we need to understand how the oil forms and the exact pathway,” he says. “We know what to use and we know what we got and how to do it, but why? We don’t know yet.” Further studies include conducting a life-

cycle analysis and examining algal coproducts, such as minerals, that could be used for fertilizer, according to Zhang, adding that he’s open to the right partnership that could economically and efficiently scale up his technology, and eventually deploy it on a commercial scale. “This work is very exciting,” Zhang says. “I think I’m on the right direction.” Author: Bryan Sims Associate Editor, Algae Technology & Business (701) 738-4974

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Algae: the Obvious Choice for Omega-3s Growing nutrition demand leads to the source of omega-3s By Todd Kimberly

It’s the ultimate underdog story—and it’s eventually coming to a grocery or health-food store near you.

Right now, the story of the booming global omega-3 market is undoubtedly straight a fish tale. Fish oil accounts for the majority of the global supply of the two most beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and represented about 80 percent of the world market for human-consumable

$OJDH,QGXVWU\8SGDWH The claims and statements made in this article belong exclusively to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Algae Technology & Business or its advertisers. All questions pertaining to this article should be directed to the author(s).

38 |

omega-3 in 2010, according to American market research publisher Packaged Facts. But there are those who believe that size matters, in this case, the smaller the better, and that those wondrous single-cell organisms known as algae will one day dominate the omega-3 nutraceutical and food additive markets, eclipsing the likes of fish, krill, fungi, hemp, and genetically modified oilseeds. “The best answer, I think, is the simplest one,” says Mark Edwards, an award-winning author, Arizona State University professor and renowned expert in the algae industry, particularly where it pertains to resolving world hunger and pursuing sustainable energy. “Algae are the natural source of omega3s in the food chain. Fish do not synthesize omega-3. They get it from their diet of al-

Cheers Andy Ayers, CEO of Algae Biosciences, says the company can grow multiple species of algae from its source water.

gae,” adds Edwards, who’s also vice president of corporate development and marketing at Algae Biosciences Inc., a new Arizona-based player in the omega-3 industry. “Why not go to the original source?” he asks. “Why go to a secondary source? Algae is the most sustainable source. It’s the original source. And it’s the most efficient (at producing omega-3s), because it’s lower on the food chain.”

Algae Wins Sustainability Argument

With the world’s population expected to hit 7 billion people in late 2011, and 200,000 more mouths to feed every day, the sustainability argument for sources of omega-3 is very hard to ignore. Fish-sourced oils appear to be at a



The Source Why go to fish, secondary sources of omega-3s, for the nutrients when you can go straight to the source: algae?

distinct disadvantage on the sustainability, health, and even taste fronts. Harvesting cold-water oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines for omega-3 deprives humanity of critical food supplies, and with global fish stocks declining, fish-sourced omega-3 oil is becoming increasingly unsustainable. Those same ocean fish may also carry pollutants and heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, and arsenic, which find their way into the resulting omega-3 oils. And harvesting small fish for omega-3 oil, of course, curtails the food-chain source that larger fish need to survive. Krill are extremely rich in omega-3 oils but, like fish, are a necessary part of the marine ecosystem. These tiny shrimp serve as food for birds, fish, and mammals in both

the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Global warming, it should be noted, has resulted in an 80 percent loss in krill stocks in Arctic waters. Meanwhile, genetically engineered monocultures, such as omega-3 oilseeds, are considered vulnerable and unstable by critics who fear the potential of side effects, contamination via cross-pollination, and widespread crop failure. Genetically engineered oilseed crops are not approved by the European Union, and some observers believe that consumer awareness of GE products will skyrocket when producers are finally required to label genetically modified nutritional products. “It takes a lot of sardines to make omega-3 oil,” Edwards notes. “You’re wasting a fall 2011 | 39

lot of fish. And the oceans are running out of fish. We’ve lost 92 percent of our large fish from the oceans since 1950. Much of this loss came from overfishing large fish, but some of it came from diminishing the food source that large fish depend on. And people are becoming more sensitive all the time to removing those vital small fish from the ocean.” Edwards continues, saying, “As for krill, it takes a lot of those little guys, 10 pounds, to create 1 pound of whale blubber. And everything in the Arctic eats krill—birds, seals, everything. It’s a most critical food source. The interesting thing about algae is that we harvest it for a whole range of products. Omega-3 fatty acid oils account for less than 5 percent of the total biomass. After we strip the omega-3s, we have oil for other purposes. We’ve got pigment, protein, animal feed … Consumers prefer an omega-3 source that is naturally biodiverse. I believe algae will replace most of the omega-3 currently harvested from unsustainable sources.”

EPA plus DHA

While fish oil accounts for most of the EPA and DHA being consumed today, producers in the algae industry are now able to offer both of these fatty acids in one fell swoop. V-Pure, in Europe, and Pure One, in the United States, were the first algae products to market containing both DHA and EPA, while Martek, now a division of DSM, re-



Achievable Goals Algae Biosciences aims to make a 40 percent product, meaning 40 percent of the fatty acids in the algae oil will be a combination of EPA and DHA.

cently announced a new algae-oil strain with a different DHA-EPA ratio. Meanwhile, AlgaeBio, with production facilities based in the Painted Desert of northeast Arizona, is using its special niche in the marketplace to soon offer a custom blend of EPA and DHA. AlgaeBio has exclusive, and unlimited, aquaculture use of remarkably pure aquifer brine water, as well as 360 days per year of free, plentiful Arizona sunlight. The resulting combination creates perfect growing conditions for photosynthetic marine algae cultures. “We can grow multiple species of algae from our source water,” says Andy Ayers, the CEO of AlgaeBio. “Some of them produce

EPA, and some of them produce DHA. As a result, we can create a custom omega-3 blend, depending on customers’ wishes. We simply dial in the EPA-DHA ratio to maximize the desired health benefits to consumers.” AlgaeBio, which is now ramping up to large-scale commercial production by very early 2012, has a short-term goal of a 40 percent product; that is, 40 percent of the fatty acids in the company’s oil will be a combination of EPA and DHA. “Our ultimate goal is 50 percent in a naturally derived oil,” says Ayers. “And because we are using a photosynthetic process, we not only extract EPA and DHA, but various other elements like carotenoids, chlorophylls, and Vitamin E. That not only adds nutritional value to the consumer, but those products also act as antioxidants for the omega-3s, which gives the product a longer shelf life.



The Key to Improved Health

Multiple Products After the omega-3s, which account for about 5 percent of the algae, are stripped, there is pigment, protein and animal feed left in the remaining biomass. 40 |

Scientists are constantly discovering more health benefits of omega-3 fatty acid oils. From this family of polyunsaturated fatty acids, EPA and DHA are considered to be the most beneficial to the human body, particularly for the heart, brain, joints, and cardiovascular system. DHA is especially important to babies’ visual and cognitive development, as well as


the growth and development of the central nervous system. DHA is also believed to protect against the increased risk of heart attack associated with stress and depression. EPA is considered beneficial for numerous inflammatory and autoimmune disorders, including asthma, arthritis, and bowel disease; it has also shown, through limited research, to improve symptoms of schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder. Both DHA and EPA are essential for heart health, having been credited with lowering blood pressure, reducing fat levels in the blood, and decelerating the development of clots. Omega-3 fatty acids have also demonstrated an ability to reduce blood vessel stiffness, according to the British Journal of Nutrition. Theyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;re also believed by some to provide cell lubrication, the same way oil lubricates the moving parts in an engine, reducing inflammation and reducing joint pain. And theyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ve been linked to a reduced risk of certain cancers, as well as improved behavior and mood. â&#x20AC;&#x153;Each new piece of research tells us a balance of these two long-chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA) is what humans use best,â&#x20AC;? says Edwards. â&#x20AC;&#x153;We just donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t get the full benefit set from one or the other.â&#x20AC;?

Omega-3s (GOED), was recently quoted as saying, â&#x20AC;&#x153;We are only at the beginning of this market. There is still too much of the worldâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s population with insufficient intakes, and too much supportive science to deny that they are necessary nutrients.â&#x20AC;? The most rapidly growing markets for omega-3s are in Asia, with three times the rate of North America and Western Europe. â&#x20AC;&#x153;Growth in developed countries has shown that EPA and DHA can be accessible to almost everyone, so there is no reason that we cannot get to the point where almost everyone in the world is getting sufficient intakes through their diet,â&#x20AC;? Ismail said. One of Edwardsâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; 18 books, â&#x20AC;&#x153;The Tiny Plant That Saved Our Planet,â&#x20AC;? was published in 2010 and earned a silver medal in the Best Childrenâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Book category at the 2011 Nauti-

lus Book Awards. It tells the story of Tiny Mighty Al, and about how one microscopic cell of algae can become the power plant of the futureâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;and make the world a better place, one molecule at a time. Can algae put on that cape and transform itself into a superhero again, becoming the dominant global source of omega-3s, proliferating health benefits, and stabilizing the oceanâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s fish stocks as a result? â&#x20AC;&#x153;I think that if people have a choice between a natural source, and raiding the ocean for a nonrenewable source,â&#x20AC;? says Edwards, â&#x20AC;&#x153;that choice will be obvious.â&#x20AC;? Author: Todd Kimberly Director of Media Relations, Algae Biosciences (403) 815-2752

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Omega-3 Market Still Booming

The global appetite for omega-3s grows more voracious all the time, according to Packaged Facts. In its August 2011 report entitled â&#x20AC;&#x153;Omega-3: Global Product Trends and Opportunities,â&#x20AC;? the company predicts that worldwide consumer spending on omega-3-enhanced food and beverage products, health and beauty care products (including nutritional supplements), and pet products will hit the $13-billion mark by the end of 2011. Packaged Facts predicts that the industry is far from reaching saturation, and that consumer demand for omega-3 products will â&#x20AC;&#x153;continue to grow brisklyâ&#x20AC;? through 2015. Adam Ismail, executive director of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA

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Process Engineering: From Beakers to Barrels Options are available for building the algae industry out By Roman Wolff

There has been a great deal of effort in recent years to develop algae growth technology; and for good reason, since some algae can produce biomass (and in particular lipids) at rates 10 times higher than terrestrial crops. The algae value chain starts with sunlight, CO2 and water/nutrients, which are used by the algae to produce protein, starches and lipids that are then converted to various higher value consumer products. This $OJDH,QGXVWU\8SGDWH

process includes three distinct skill sets: biology, farming, and process engineering. While this article focuses on process engineering (biofuel and biobased chemicals production) a short description of the other two disciplines will help define the overall picture. Biology: Strain selection and growth optimization is the first step in the algae value chain. Once the desired material to be produced is defined (lipids, protein, starch, or total biomass), an algae strain can be chosen or genetically modified to deliver the desired performance. Once the algae strain is chosen, the growth conditions must be

The claims and statements made in this article belong exclusively to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Algae Technology & Business or its advertisers. All questions pertaining to this article should be directed to the author(s). 42 |

optimized to meet the production goals. The right algae strain and growth conditions are essential to the success or failure of an algae project. Farming: Cultivation and harvesting technologies for algae have taken many forms. Cultivation has been practiced in open ponds, photobioreactors, hybrid systems, and even in wastewater facilities. Harvesting (collecting the algae from the water) has been performed using belts, filters, centrifuges, gravity settlers, clarifiers using chemical additives and many others. Cultivation and harvesting technologies are currently technically feasible and algae biomass is now ready for further processing into higher value products. Process Engineering: Extraction and


different ways to perform pyrolysis. Fast pyrolysis is the preferred route for land-based biomass, agricultural and forest byproducts essentially, since this biomass is relatively dry. Hydropyrolysis, or pyrolysis performed in water, may be more effective for algae biomass since it has high-water content, and water removal from algae biomass is very expensive. Irrespective of the approach used, most of the algae biomass-derived biocrude is acidic and corrosive. This acidity must be removed to make the biocrude refinery ready. Hydrogenation has been used to deal with the acidity but this approach is burdened with high capital and operating costs. An alternative is the application of emergent technologies such as Enhanced Biofuels HS Reactor System, which can reduce this acidity in a cost-effective way via high efficient esterification. Algae oil in the more popular algae processing scheme, extraction and processing are used to separate the algae oil, starches and proteins from algae biomass. In general terms, the process includes the following steps.


processing of algae biomass yields algae oil, protein and starches. Algae biomass could also be converted directly into biocrude via pyrolysis. Conventional process engineering skills are used to develop the technologies required to perform extraction and processing of algae biomass. This is a critical step and work is ongoing to develop economically viable solutions. Many traditional industries such as refining, petrochemical, oleochemical, and pulp and paper use the same proven technology frameworks that can be applied with some modifications and innovation to the extraction and processing of algae biomass. Emergent technology companies have used these established frameworks and developed effective and creative solutions. Established technologies like pyrolysis, hydrogenation, and solvent extraction have also been used to convert algae biomass into higher value products. Algae biomass can be processed using pyrolysis to yield biocrude. The final objective is to create biocrude that can be fed directly into a refinery to make drop-in transportation fuels. There are a number of

Strain Selection Once the algae strain is chosen, the growth conditions must be optimized to meet production goals.

First algae biomass is dewatered, then it undergoes lysis (break-up of the cell wall to release the oil), and finally the oil is extracted by solvent or membrane technologies. The protein has uses in animal feed, and starches can be used in the production of ethanol. Algae oil can be used in the production of biodiesel, renewable diesel or aviation fuel, and lubricants and additives. Fuel: Algae oil has been touted as a great feedstock for biodiesel, renewable diesel/jet due to its potential future abundance and molecular weight distribution, meaning smaller molecules similar to jet fuel. The high acidity of algae oil, however, could require extensive pretreatment steps and could be corrosive to the equipment and catalyst used in the processing of algae oil into fuel. A far more economic option is to minimize the acidity with the use of emergent technologies such as Enhanced Biofuels HS Reactor System, which would eliminate the need for extensive pretreatment steps and allow for the use of conventional metallurgy and catalyst. Chemicals: Algae oil can also be used as feedstock for lubricity additives and some green lubricants because the algae oil has a very broad free fatty acid profile, which creates the potential for many different and likely higher value lubricity additives. Most lubricity additives are esters, so high efficiency esterification such as Enhanced Biofuels HS Reactor System should be the processing technology of choice to make these highvalue products in a cost-effective manner. The refineries and chemical plants of the future will look very similar to the refineries and chemical plants of today. They will use similar process engineering technology framework and infrastructure to create similar fuels and chemicals. Traditional and emerging technologies bring this processing experience and perspective to the algae biomass and algae oil processing industries. Author: Roman Wolff President, Enhanced Biofuels (713) 301-8660

fall 2011 | 43




Port of Algae Above the Port of Lorient on the Golf de Morbihan in Brittany, France, resides the Kaolin algae pits of Lorient where Safeoil is experimenting with openpond algae growth for biodiesel production.

The Kaolin Algae Pits of Lorient

and very high technology sailing boats, one of them currently holds the sailing speed record. It is also a city that The French government wants you there has seen its share of failBy Peter Brown ures usually at the hands of outside investors with The port of Lorient on big ideas, large promises and short attention the Golf de Morbihan in Brit- spans. Each blighted project becoming the aptany, France, is one of the ma- ple in the eye of a local entrepreneur who will jor French seaports, a former attempt to make happen what others could military naval base and during not. Such a project is the biodiesel algae projWWII it was the site of Germa- ect taking place in the hills above the city in nyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s largest U-Boot refuel, refit abandoned kaolin quarries that have spawned and rearm facility. It is a resilient and not only a whole colony of promising algae gritty city that has suffered much, learned but also a development project called SafeOil a lot and insists on being one of the major that has expressed the intention of harvesting centers for Franceâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s renewable energy tech- the algae and making an experimental run at nologies with an emphasis on wind and wa- producing biodiesel from open air algae proter. Around Lorient are small fishing villages duction. $OJDH,QGXVWU\8SGDWH

The claims and statements made in this article belong exclusively to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Algae Technology & Business or its advertisers. All questions pertaining to this article should be directed to the author(s). 44 |

Kaolin is a naturally occurring, soft white clay that is used extensively in the paper industry, and is essential for creating fine ceramics. It is also used in medicine, cosmetics and other industrial applications. The name is derived from the Chinese Kao-Ling, where it was first mined centuries ago. Brittany is an energy poor region in France, there are no nuclear power plants, nor would they be accepted, there is no coal, petroleum, biofuels or other energy production available, which is why the government is very open and receptive to energy projects and the region is developing a reputation for audacious wind power projects. In 2007, an American company was invited to review the area and, because of the farming and animal infrastructure, consider starting a biodiesel facility. During the course of the meetings we noticed repeated references to the closing of the kaolin quarries. This was the period when algae, food or fuel, deforestation, carbon credits and greenhouse gasses were becoming industry and popular press buzzwords. Putting it all together, and after a meet-


ing with IFREMER, France’s world famous Ocean and Sea research group, the discussion about algae became ever more pointed and a visit to the site was organized. There, on 400 hectares within sight of the ocean and far from habitation, the site was enchanting because the quarries have filled with water and there are more than 20 of these ponds within the complex. Some are quite deep, but all contain kaolin residue in suspension and therein lies the astounding properties of the algae ponds of Lorient. Early on IFREMER conducted a site study to see what the effect of the kaolin would have on the development of algae strains and they came to a number of fascinating conclusions. It seems that native algae in the ponds throve when surrounded by heavy concentrations of kaolin whereas filtered water from the ponds, with the majority of the kaolin removed, showed very little algae propagation. The tests in seawater and brackish water were so promising that several companies became interested in pursuing the project with Veolia actually contributing research funds. But as the financial situation deteriorated around the world, and algae research moved into the large bioreactor direction, the budding Kaolin project was slowly forgotten by all but a group of diehard local people who


founded Safeoil. The project itself brought together Imerys, the actual owners of the quarries, one of the world leaders in industrial minerals with extraction facilities worldwide. Their interest started with kaolin and rapidly expanded to the biodiesel and other algae derived products. Sarp Industries, a division of Veolia, took an early interest in the project since it marries well with their recycling and biofuels production strategy, their involvement at this time is under review. Veolia’s early interest in biodiesel worldwide was derived from its very large fleet of dieselpowered equipment from waste recuperation trucks through pumping and other industrial applications. The project itself is part of two new efforts to progress beyond the research stage; the first is the fact that it is part of the Pole Mer Bretagne, a competitive cluster that is part of the greater French effort to integrate research projects from all over France and their territories such as Martinique and Tahiti. Safeoil is also part of the greater research effort on algae assembled under the “Livre Turquoise,” a weighty compendium of all the algae projects presently under consideration for funding in France. The country has fallen behind in the production of algae-based research as well as in the production of biodiesel. The efforts to expand that shortcoming are unfortunately modest at this point, but the efforts are based on a very simple principle— if you build it, industry will come—so World Class research is available from IFREMER, Green Stars, INRIA and others to both facilitate and attract outside investors to promising technologies. France’s recent decision to cut tax incentives for biodiesel in the upcoming years is considered a genuine benShow Time Laboratoire Physiology and Biotechnology of algae Centre Ifremer de Nantes uses lights and photobioreactors to study the physiology of algae. efit for the algae indus-

try. It is anticipated that using a feedstock that requires no arable land, can be produced in vast quantities using an existing infrastructure for relatively low cost with high annual yields will justify the initial research efforts. The decision to cut the tax incentives was based on petroleum achieving price parity with biofuels and penalties to fuel producers will make up the difference, since the EU requirement as well as the French requirement for 7 percent biodiesel blends are still in place. Meanwhile, up in the hills above Lorient, some of the algae in the ponds showed up to 50 percent oil content, well above any other open pond research. The harvesting and oil extraction question was briefly reviewed before the project went into hibernation. At that point, the plan was to use pumping systems to develop a two-tiered approach to the algae development: the first directly into the quarries under “natural “conditions; the second by developing a series of large tanks and pumping combinations of fresh and sea water to develop the optimum growing medium. “What this group really needs is the presence of a large cash infusion and new blood. All the elements are in place to remove the results and apply them to places like Cornwall in the U.K., the Ukraine or any other area where food-versus-fuel is an issue and land is expensive, “says Nicolas Teisseire, Audelor’s regional Development Officer. “We have watched over this unique site for five years now and everyone who has worked there tells me that it offers a unique opportunity for crucial algae development.” The oil-bearing algae of Lorient is a unique algae research site, and any company interested in furthering the research will be enthusiastically supported by the French government, local businesses and acquire valuable European access to a flourishing biodiesel market. It will also open the door for industrial production of algal biodiesel from similar sites around the world. Author: Peter Brown President, International Procurement Tools (408) 426-5585

fall 2011 | 45






.*$30"-("& "26"5*$#*0."44 Interactive Presentations on: Aquatic Biomass - BioFuels & By-products - Production Systems; Scale & Economics - BioRefinery Concepts - Genetic Engineering vs. Strain Collection - Sustainable Aquatic Cycles - Innovative Applications of Advanced Biotechnological Solutions I Information Market - Posters


Fall 2011 Algae Technology & Business  

Fall 2011 Algae Technology & Business

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