ABS: Summit explores future of algae

By Jerry W. Kram | October 14, 2008
Web exclusive posted Oct. 24, 2008 at 2:16 p.m. CST

The opening session of the Algae Biomass Summit in Seattle on Oct. 23 was a standing room only event. The Algae Biomass Summit in Seattle on Oct. 23 drew more than 650 participants and 50 speakers, nearly double the attendance of the inaugural summit in 2007. The event, which is the official conference of the Algal Biomass Organization, is designed to highlight scientific advances and share knowledge in an effort to accelerate the commercialization of algae production.

Mario Tredici from the department of agricultural biotechnology at the University of Florence in Italy said algae has many of the properties for a second green revolution that could help satisfy the world's energy and food needs. However, algae have very specific culture requirements to produce near their theoretical potential. Changing light conditions as the density of cultures increase can limit the efficiency of the plants ability to convert sunlight into biomass. "Algae are not a miracle," he said. "It must obey the laws of thermodynamics." He does believe, with the proper technology and understanding of algae's biology, that yields of 70 to 80 tons of algae can be produced per hectare (approximately 2.5 acres), producing 15 to 20 tons of oil and about twice that much protein.

The true value of algae will rely on the total amount of biomass not just the oil content, said Mark Tegan, chief executive officer of Inventure Chemical. Inventure processes biomass products into value-added products. Algae produce three distinct products – oil, carbohydrates and protein. Each component can be processed downstream into a variety of valuable products. "There is a lot of opportunity available in the chemical market," Tegan said.

Tryg Lundquist, a professor at the California Polytechnic State University, updated a study that looked at the economics of building a large-scale algae production facility, and summarized the results as "expensive." His projections show algae oil will cost $9 to $16 a gallon, not including the cost of processing it into biodiesel. A system using algae to capture nutrients as part of waste water treatment would have a capital cost of $36 million. The cost for a stand alone algae facility would be similar.
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