University of Hawaii Assistant Professor Zackary Johnson examines algae cultures
Within just two years, Americans could be filling their cars with clean-burning biodiesel made from algae.
That’s the ambitious assessment of Harrison Dillon, co-founder of synthetic biology company Solazyme, who believes the transition could move even faster if oil prices continue to climb north of $100 a barrel.
Solazyme is one of the leaders in the rapidly blooming algae-oil industry, and has recently entered talks with Chevron about distributing its fuel, Soladiesel. Other front-runners include Shell, working with HR Biopetroleum, Global Green Solutions, Valcent Products and International Energy. However, all owe a debt to a 30-year-old research project.
The $25 million Aquatic Species Program was set up in 1978 by the Carter Administration to investigate high-oil types of algae that could be grown for biodiesel. The project, run by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, found algae farms producing the plants in shallow ponds could supply enough biodiesel to completely replace fossil oil for transportation and home heating.
Scientists estimated the 140.8 billion gallons needed to fuel the country at the time could be produced by 15,000 square miles of algae farms. To put that in perspective, Arizona’s Sonora Desert alone is 120,000 square miles.
But by 1995, oil prices had settled down again and President Clinton's government was looking for budget cuts. The NREL decided to concentrate on ethanol and closed the ASP. However, its collection of more than 3,000 strains of algae is still open to researchers at the University of Hawaii and is widely regarded as the intellectual property backbone for today’s algae-to-fuel startups.
Work on algae cutltures at National Energy Laboratory Hawaii Authority (NELH) , Kona
Algae as a feedstock has some attractive statistics. According to figures from Valcent Products, corn can produce 18 gallons of oil per acre per year, palm manages 700 to 800 gallons, but algae can produce 20,000 gallons per acre per year using an open pond system. New closed-loop 'bio-reactor' systems are now achieving even higher yields.
Another potential benefit is that particular carbon structures found in different strains of algae will allow the development of 'designer diesels,' for example jet fuel, or fuel for heavy trucks.
Last December, Royal Dutch Shell announced a collaboration with HR Biopetroleum, a tiny government-funded start-up on the Hawaiian island of Kona. The oil giant has formed a new company called Cellana, which will grow algae on a 100,000-hectare site using seawater ponds and sunlight. Shell has refused to comment on how much it has invested in the project.
Other companies are shifting away from ponds because of the problems of water evaporation and the risk of contamination by other algae species blown in with the wind. However, if algae is grown indoors using electric light, the power used could negate the CO2 sequestered by the plants.
The Vertigro Bio Reactor System has been designed to avoid both problems. Algae is grown within plastic bubbles hanging from racks in a greenhouse. Vertigro is a joint venture by and Global Green Solutions, a giant with offices in El Paso, Vancouver, London, Brussels and Johannesburg, and Valcent Products of Texas. During a 90-day continual production test, algae was being harvested at an average of one gram (dry weight) per liter, which the company estimates would equate to 33,000 gallons of algae oil per acre per year. Such an output is a third more than a pond system could produce, the team estimates.
Michael Gilbert, vice president of Strategy and Business Development for Global Green Solutions, explains that although it seems appropriate to combat greenhouse gases with a greenhouse, you don't actually need one. The structure is only there to protect the racks from the elements, including Texas hailstorms.
"Once algae starts growing, light only penetrates one inch. By going vertical, we can increase the surface area and the volume that gets exposed to sunlight,” he says. “We also try to use every drop of water we can. There's no evaporation, we only lose what's bound up in the algae oil and the plant."
Vertigro grows algae vertically, which increases output.
Once the oil has been extracted, the remaining plant matter could be sold for use as cellulosic ethanol production or even animal feed.
Of the government-back ASP research, Gilbert says: "It was good, it had to sit around for 20 years, but all companies now use it as a starting point."
International Energy, based in Vancouver, Canada, claims to have created a proprietary technology that harvests oil without killing the algae. It also is experimenting with various strains of algae.
"Unlike ethanol from traditional fuel crops, such as corn and soybeans, which require considerable time to grow, use large amounts of herbicides and nitrogen fertilizers and consume just as much fossil fuel as the ethanol itself replaces, algae can grow in wastewater, even seawater, and requires little more than sunlight and carbon dioxide to flourish,” says Harmel S. Rayat, a director of International Energy.
Solazyme of South San Francisco describes itself as a synthetic biology company, but it has also become an oil refining concern since it has been growing algae for oil and then turning it into its patented Soladiesel. The fuel meets biodiesel standard D6751 and European standard EN 14214, so any diesel car can use it without modification. In fact, members of the Solazyme team have been driving a Mercedes C320 up and down the California coast using only Soladiesel.
A Mercedes C320 powered by Solazyme fuel.
President and Chief Technology Officer Harrison Dillon tells Green Fuels Forecast that the performance was excellent, and that this fuel burns far cleaner than petroleum diesel.
"It was a very important part of our strategy to make our fuels and oils compatible with existing infrastructure from the pipelines, tanks and pumps,” he says.
Solazyme grows algae without any light, in metal tanks similar to those found at breweries. Solazyme’s process is based on the fact that algae needs light and CO2 only to produce sugar. The algae make oil from the sugar as a way of storing its energy just as humans store fat. So Solazyme simply feeds the algae sugar, and has achieved a 1,000-fold increase in oil production. The disadvantage from an environmental standpoint is, of course, that no carbon dioxide is sequestered during the process. Harrison Dillon says the sugar currently comes from sugar cane because there is a worldwide surplus. It could come from cellulose in plant waste and wood, however, and algae, which thrives on rotting plantlife, can digest this without the help required by yeast when fermenting cellulosic ethanol.
The company now is in talks with Chevron Technology Ventures, a division of Chevron USA, about further testing and distribution. It also is investigating other uses for the algae oil, which can be used for anything currently produced from fossil oil including lubricants, household cleaning products, plastics and even fabrics. Once again, though, Dillon tips his hat to the ASP.
Harrison Dillon, president and chief technology officer of Solazyme, with the bioreactor.
"It was a useful starting point. I was following algae for biofuels at the time, but felt it was too far away,” Dillon says.
Dillan and CEO Jonathan Wolfson set up Solazyme in 2003, having struggled to find a venture capital firm that had even heard of biofuels.
"Biofuels are popular now, I'm glad we've been working on it for five years,” he says.