Industry urged to change the conversation on biofuels

By Susanne Retka Schill | October 14, 2009
Posted November 18, 2009

The biofuels industry is at the point where the Internet was in 1992, Riggs Eckelberry, CEO of OriginOil Inc. said in his remarks at the Next Generation Biofuels Feedstocks USA conference in San Francisco, Nov. 16-17. Not quite 20 years ago, the Internet was a "slow and painful academic system", Eckelberry said, until the first Netscape browser was launched in 1994 that introduced a new way of looking at computing-computers to communicate and not just compute. The wide sharing of the free browser launched a revolution in communications that has become global.

Biofuels will explode just as the Internet did in 1994, Eckelberry said. "We need a new way of looking at biofuels," he urged, plus the technology to support them and the wide sharing of that technology. He observed that biofuels are being unfairly compared to other renewable technologies that will take trillions of dollars and decades to put the infrastructure in place to deploy wind, solar, geothermal and other energy solutions. He urged the audience to "change the conversation," adding that "only biofuels can deliver new energy, right now. The proof?- My existing car can run on new energy." Eckelberry advocated replacing the existing centralized petroleum refining and power generation approach with a distributed system. OriginOil is exploring such an approach to deploy its patented technology for a single-step, algal oil extraction process.

As an algae-technology developer, Eckelberry was one of several speakers addressing feedstock developments. Analyst Will Thurmond reported a "mix of optimism, pessimism and everything in between" among participants at the conference. In Thurmond's remarks at the conference, he discussed his in-depth study of emerging algae companies. "Algae will be a good long-term bet," he said, but like cellulosic ethanol, suffers from the "in-just-three-more-years syndrome." Algae will need tax credits or other incentives to get off the ground, he predicted, with the U.S. Department of Defense most likely being the first customer for the new feedstock.

About 20 development projects worldwide are ready to move from the laboratory to pilot stage at this time, he said, with the largest facility in the world covering just five acres. Once the proof of concept is completed on the pilot scale, the next level will be to move to demonstration scale and prove the economics. He also reported the emphasis among algae developers is moving away from algae oil for biodiesel production. "A lot of companies that got into algae used to be biodiesel producers and were investing in algae for biodiesel," he said. "Now they're talking about meal and high value products, and saying they are algae food and fuel companies."

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