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Algae keep on rockin’ in the free world

By: Jim Lane, Biofuels Digest

In Mexico, the Mexican government has announced its “Manhattan Project” with an initial goal of producing 1 percent of its jet fuel from algae by 2015, and OriginOil has agreed to participate in a pilot scale algae project funded by the Mexican government.

“By the end of this decade, the project must produce nearly twenty times that amount, propelling Mexico to the front rank of bio-fuel producing nations,” said Riggs Eckelberry, OriginOil CEO.

The project operator, Genesis Ventures of Ensenada, Baja California, has received a first Economy Ministry grant through The National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) for its first site. Genesis will develop the site as a model for numerous additional projects to be co-located with large CO2 sources.

Ensenada’s Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education (CICESE) will operate the Genesis site. Genesis will also invite University of Baja California (UABC) algae researchers to collaborate in the project.

The origin of the relationship: One of Genesis’ development partners, Jose Sanchez, OriginOil’s vice president of growth and production. Before joining OriginOil, Sanchez was General Manager of Aurora Mexico, where he launched Aurora’s Mexico-based field operations, built and opened its R&D facilities, and managed initial scale-up endeavors.

Algae, You Really Got a Hold On Me: Why?

From the low points like the closure of the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Aquatic Species Program to highs like 2009′s “Summer of Algae”, aquatic organisms from cyanobacteria to macroalgae have maintained a hold over the imagination of a large cheering section of the biofuels industry, and indeed, the world.

Lately, relentless television advertising from ExxonMobil, touting its cyanobacteria-based R&D partnership with Synthetic Genomics, has continued to drive home the message of the promise of algae.

The promise can be summed up in one word: yield. While terrestrial biofuels ventures have no more than 2,000 per acre yields – and most sugarcane ethanol venture gallonage per acre measures in the mid 600s, corn in the 400s. and soybeans in the 60s – algae has the promise of taking yields up to 5,000 gallons per acre – even 10,000 gallons per acre. It’s Moore’s Law wrapped up in a one-celled organism.

Those tiny dancers can produce

The yield case has been stated in a wide variety of ways by a wide number of algal biofuels boosters and friends. Critics have pointed to challenges – growing stable algal cultures, finding strains that have the most optimal combinations of lipids, carbs and proteins, an economically viable system of harvesting, getting the algae out of the water or the water out of the algae, and finding sustainable and affordable sources of nutrients and CO2. Not to mention the challenges of finding the right water source, and the omnipresent difficulties in raising sufficient cash to develop, prove and scale first-of-kind, capital intensive ventures in algal blooming.

If 2009 was the high watermark of that first rush of newfound enthusiasm for algae, 2010 was a year of tempered expectations, and a strong commitment by a wide assortment of research entities, governments and private ventures towards the identification and systematic solving of the challenges, in order to unlock the value of algal fuel, feed, and bio-based materials and chemicals.

Do you believe?

Not everyone is filled with cheer – longtime industry consultant, John “Doctor No” Benemann, recently cited the four immutable laws of algal biofuels:

Oswald’s Law: The secret of algae is that we have no secrets (only the algae have the secrets).

Inverse Law Of Knowledge Law: The less you know, the better it looks.

Benemann’s Law: When algae look good you know you are in trouble (and algae have never looked better than now).

Weissman’s Law: Photobioreactors are not scalable.

We also add, from last week’s “Fortune Cookies” in the Digest: “Do not even begin an algal biofuels adventure until you have found an affordable way to get the algae out of the water, or the water out of the algae.”

Bad to the Bone?

Rachel Smolker bagged on Algenol last week in the Ft. Myers (Fla.) News-Press:

Algenol describes itself as a “science-driven company using biotechnology to produce biofuels and green chemicals from carbon dioxide emissions.”

Who could possibly object to something so green and clean? Anyone with a basic understanding of life…A “lifecycle assessment” of algae fuels recently published in Environmental Science and Technology in January 2010 reports that switchgrass, canola and even corn farming have lower environmental impacts than algae in energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and water use…Using excess nutrients from local contaminated waterways might help, but entails other risks: many algae fuel companies are depending on genetically modified strains of algae, or even varieties developed using synthetic biology…Experimentation with algae fuels has been underway for a long time – and yet no commercial scale production yet exists! How much money, and how many years of ongoing investment are needed?…Floridians should ask themselves: are there better options for our tax dollars? The long term prospects for biofuels are questionable.

Paul Woods, CEO of Algenol, responded:

“The first issue is that Ms. Smolker lumps all algae technology together. But not all algae companies are created equally. Algenol’s Direct To Ethanol process for making less than $1 per gallon ethanol is radically different. It does not require farm land, grains, sugars or fresh water.

“Unlike other algae-based biofuels companies, which are making biodiesel, Algenol does not harvest the algae, so only trace amounts of nutrients are needed – just as human adults need trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. Our technology has been patented, and independently validated by blue chip industrial partners, such The Dow Chemical Company and Valero, and government scientists and officials, including the U.S. Department of Energy.

Ms. Smolker is certainly correct that many algae biofuel technologies require a lot of ingredients and expend considerable amounts of energy…However, she fails to cite a peer-reviewed life cycle assessment of Algenol’s process that was published in a more recent edition (October 2010) of the very same Environmental Science and Technology. The Georgia Tech researchers who published this assessment found a 67-87 percent lower carbon footprint than that for traditional gasoline. The net energy yield from our Direct To Ethanol¨ process far exceeds that for other algae-based biofuels.

“As a Floridian, it also greatly concerns me that we export billions of dollars out of state to buy transportation fuel made from crude oil imported from often unfriendly countries. Algenol offers Florida a viable solution to this money drain.”

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