Industry steps up algae efforts

By Jerry W. Kram | September 16, 2008
From coast to coast, renewable energy companies are turning their attention toward the use of algae as a biodiesel feedstock. Recently, a stream of announcements revealed that various research and development efforts are underway as ever-increasing feedstock prices are forcing the biodiesel industry to look for new sources of oils.

Renewable Energy Group Inc. in Ames, Iowa, announced the availability of a technology capable of producing biodiesel from algae oil. REG has adapted it multi-feedstock technology to refine oil from a variety of algae strains and produce biodiesel exceeding ASTM standards. Results indicate the process can be commercialized when sufficient quantities of algae oil become available. "We have worked with a variety of algae companies that we think will become producers," said REG Chief Operating Officer Daniel Oh. He stressed that REG has no plans to produce its own algae, but it's optimistic that commercial quantities of industrial algae oil will be available within three to five years.

Origin Oil Inc. has developed an internally illuminated bioreactor, called the Helix Bioreactor. Chief Executive Officer Riggs Eckelberry said the LED-lit bioreactors provide algae with only the wavelengths of light needed to stimulate growth. The company has also patented what it calls "quantum fracturing." This is a system that creates micronized bubbles of carbon dioxide and nutrients that the company said are easier for algae to absorb, thus increasing their growth rates. The system also combines quantum fracturing with tuned microwaves to burst the algae cells, releasing the oil inside and simplifying harvest.

The University of Washington has created a biofuels start-up company that aims to create fast-growing strains of algae. Called AXI, the company recently received funding from East Coast investment firm Allied Minds. AXI's technology will be based on work by biology professor Rose Ann Cattolico. Allied Minds Vice President Erick Rabins said Cattolico's technology can improve the productivity of virtually any strain of algae.

The University of Georgia Biorefining and Carbon Cycling Program is examining whether wastewater from the carpet manufacturing industry can be leveraged to grow oil-producing algae. The carpet industry in Dalton, Ga., a city dubbed "The Carpet Capital of the World," produces 30 million to 35 million gallons of wastewater daily. Researchers have isolated natural strains of microalgae from the wastewater that may be good candidates for use in biodiesel production.

Commissioners in Saline County, Mo., approved $141 million in industrial development revenue bonds for EcoAlgae USA LLC. The company is proposing a commercial-scale algae production facility in conjunction with an integrated biorefinery complex. EcoAlgae USA will contract with Green Star Products Inc.'s associated consortium of companies to construct the algae-to-biodiesel and next-generation waste-to-energy complex. Four companies will provide the main technologies required for the facility: Green Star Products, Pure Energy Corp., MKW Biogas and Biotech Research. Algae research, processing and refining, cellulosic ethanol, and biogas technologies will all be integrated at the facility to produce bio-oil, cattle feed, electricity, biodiesel, ethanol and steam.

In Hawaii, HR BioPetroleum, Alexander & Baldwin Inc., and Hawaiian Electric Co. and Maui Electric Co., subsidiaries of Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc., have signed memorandums of understanding to develop a commercial-scale microalgae facility on the island of Maui. The facility will produce lipid oil to be used in producing biodiesel and other products, such as animal feed. According to Hawaiian Electric, the first phase of the commercial-scale facility could be operational by 2011.
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