The Promise and the Reality

Some entrepreneurs have hyped algae claims, yet business plays a key role in keeping the effort grounded while researchers advance the science. Everyone agrees, however, algae holds great promise.
By By Susanne Retka Schill | September 18, 2009
Algae claims hit stratospheric levels as excitement for the prospective new biofuel feedstock built tremendous momentum in the past three years. More than 150 companies worldwide have launched projects to capitalize on the promise of algae. With breakthroughs being announced weekly, it seems, healthy skepticism towards some overstated claims is advised. But this summer, algae gained credibility when large, established companies announced major research projects: ExxonMobil Corp. committed $600 million over the next five to six years in a collaboration with Synthetic Genomics; BP Amoco plc announced $10 million for a project with Martek Biosciences Corp. over three years; and Dow Chemical Co. and Algenol Biofuels Inc. declared a joint pilot project to produce ethanol from an algae-based biorefinery. In addition, two large U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Project Agency contracts were awarded earlier this year, and multiple academic research projects were announced, leaving one questioning whether the skepticism surrounding algae is overstated.

The promise and the reality of algal biofuels are laid out in a report published this summer by the U.S. DOE Biomass Program. The DOE pulled together 200 algae experts this past winter from the public and private sectors, in a workshop to discuss the future direction for public research. The comment period on the draft document closed in August, with the final version expected by the end of 2009. The draft, titled, "National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap," states there is unanimous agreement that a great deal of research is still needed to fully realize algae's potential, but continuing the developmental efforts is still fully supported. The report provides a status overview of key areas and identifies numerous research needs. Yet, even in a 214-page document written by committee, the excitement for algae's potential comes through. "Microalgae promises much higher productivities per unit area given its higher photosynthetic efficiency when compared to conventional crops," the roadmap says. Citing a range of reported yields between 1,000 and 4,000 gallons per acre annually, the report suggests algae could supply all of the renewable fuels targeted by the 36 billion-gallon renewable fuels standard. The report even gives a scenario, as unlikely as it may be, demonstrating algae's promise that, given acreage equal to the land devoted to the U.S. soybean crop, algae biofuel could replace the entire volume of diesel consumed in the U.S. This large-scale volume potential is a primary driver behind oil industry interest in algae research and development.

Reaching that sort of potential, however, will require a concerted, coordinated research effort that many say will take a decade to complete, and it will require a commitment similar to the race to put man on the moon. Algae biology and harvesting, in particular, need major advancements, but extraction methods and conversion technology developments are further along. While that would seem to put algae commercialization a long way off, the algal roadmap does suggest there will be near-term applications, laying out a scenario for integrated energy production. Not only could co-locating ethanol production with fossil-fuel power generation increase total energy efficiency, but growing algae with the CO2 emissions from both could provide a carbon sink, plus oil for biodiesel and other coproducts.

Intermediate Steps
The development of high-value coproducts is a key intermediate step for large-scale algae commercialization, says Bill Barclay, chief intellectual property officer at Martek. Barclay has 30 years of experience working with algae, first with the DOE's aquatic species program, then as an entrepreneur developing algae for high-value omega-3 nutritional supplements. Technological development historically occurs in small steps, he says, pointing to how the race to the moon started with orbiting around the earth, then circling manned spacecraft around the moon, and ultimately landing man there. The algae industry needs to make small steps first, he suggests, focusing on high-value products such as renewable polymers or pigments for paint. "You don't have to have everything 100 percent efficient for those products like you do to have low cost fuels," he says. The intermediate products provide cash flow as experience is gained, giving time to work out the challenges inherent in large-scale, low-cost production required for competitive fuel production. Barclay sees small steps increasingly being taken as he monitors patent applications. "You can see a wave of patents starting on intermediate technologies," he says.
The entrepreneurial excitement surrounding algae has contributed to increased dollars for research, says Juergen Polle, associate professor of biology at City University of New York. He's evaluating more than 800 wild algae strains, looking for high lipid producers that also show robust growth potential. Polle voices concern that over-stated claims for algae could hurt everyone in the industry if a backlash occurs. Some companies claim yields that are higher than possible in nature, he says, advising healthy skepticism toward companies making claims while withholding even basic details for "proprietary reasons." As a researcher, he would like to evaluate the technology to see if there truly has been a breakthrough, or whether the concept is flawed. There is, after all, a reason why academia developed a system for research papers to undergo peer review before publication in academic journals.

Tension exists between academia and the business community. Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the Algal Biomass Organization, calls it the dance between the cautiousness of academia and the entrepreneurial desire for commercialization. "We need both, we need academics to develop the science and the entrepreneur to keep us on a good commercial track," she says. "Then we can create an industry." Previously, Rosenthal was director of communications and public affairs for NatureWorks LLC, a Cargill Inc. subsidiary that is a large manufacturer of bioplastics. "I've spent the past four years immersed in the world of sustainable plastics, so I am well aware of the huge potential for algae to serve many different needs, including fuel, food and chemicals," she says. She sees algae development accelerating at a faster pace than the development of bioplastics, which also involves microbes, in this case fermenting a corn substrate.

As one who has successfully developed algae production for nutritional supplements, Barclay says the real challenge for algae is scaling up for high-volume, low-cost fuel markets. "Anybody can make 200 gallons of algal fuel," he says. "Figuring out how to grow algae on a very large scale is where all the problems come in." It is relatively easy to grow algae in controlled laboratory conditions, and getting oil yields of 50 percent to 60 percent under ideal conditions is achievable, he points out. However, extrapolating those peak yields over a year is the source of some of the overly ambitious claims. "The average yield over a year's time in cells grown outdoors drops to 15 to 25 percent," Barclay says. "For biofuels to become cost effective that needs to be 40 or 50 percent." Put in perspective, Barclay says this will require more than a 300-fold increase in productivity.

While biologists are focused on understanding and optimizing algae performance, engineers are working to devise the systems that cost-effectively support production, harvesting and oil extraction. The DOE roadmap calls for an acceleration of that work in private-public partnerships. "Given recent and dramatic advances in relevant fields, in particular biology, and the fact that realizing the strategic potential of this feedstock will require critical engineering innovations and science breakthroughs in understanding algal mass culture and downstream processing, a more substantial and sustained investment is paramount," the report says. Prominent examples already underway are the DARPA awards with $25 million going to a collaboration managed by defense contractor Science Applications International Corp., and $43 million going to a collaboration managed by General Atomics.

Announcements of subcontracts being signed in those projects began to surface this summer. More research collaborations are in the works and are expected to be supported with economic stimulus funds. Proposals were due in mid-September from partnerships applying for a portion of the $50 million earmarked for algae consortia and $35 million for advanced biofuels.

Algae followers will closely watch those named in the various research announcements for clues on which companies and academic research teams are emerging as winners in the race to commercialize algae.

Susanne Retka Schill is assistant editor of Biodiesel Magazine. Reach her at or (701) 738-4922.
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