ABO urges job creation, parity during Capitol Hill meetings

By Bryan Sims | April 06, 2011

Job creation along with technology and feedstock parity were key messages the Algal Biomass Organization aimed to drive home to members of Congress during its two-day fly-in visit on Capitol Hill this week. While there, the ABO hosted a conference call for members of the media outlining the objectives that the organization and 22 of its members set out to accomplish in Washington.

According to ABO Executive Director Mary Rosenthal, the algae industry will play a significant role in growing the U.S. economy. Rosenthal estimated there are currently more than 60 universities in 41 states that have research activities involving algae.

“Right now, we feel that algae employs, either directly or indirectly, more than 20,000 workers at approximately 100 companies,” she said. “As the industry matures, based on a study we did in 2010, we expect that this industry could employ more than 200,000 skilled workers by 2022.”

Members of the ABO pushed for parity when it comes to technology development and feedstock utilization. Rosenthal said the ABO was adamant about algae’s inclusion as part of the cellulosic biofuel carve-out in the RFS2 and that it receives the same $1.01 per gallon cellulosic biofuel production tax credit. Additionally, the ABO advocated continued funding from the DOE, defense department and USDA to continue not only R&D developments today, but also to further scale-up efforts towards commercialization. She added the ABO’s support for the algae industry to be taken into direct consideration with the 2012 Farm Bill.

“We don’t want Congress to pick winners and losers, but rather to be technology neutral and feedstock agnostic and to let the innovation and technology lead the way,” Rosenthal said. “We’re seeing that in the algae industry now. The technology developments that I’ve seen and that I know are coming on the horizon are going to be tremendous for commercializing the industry.”

John Pierce, partner at law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and ABO board member, highlighted the importance of working cooperatively with the USDA about ways to spur additional growth in the algae industry.

“From my perspective, a lot of the stuff that I’m seeing is agricultural-based,” Pierce said. “We do a lot of work with the USDA and the USDA certainly sees it that way and it sees that a lot of its tools are applicable to try and promote the industry, specifically in terms of the USDA’s advanced biorefining programs, their programs around crops and programs around rural development. I expect to see a lot of good things and a lot of good work cooperatively being done with the USDA in the next few years.”

Jeff Bargiel of Ohio-based algae biotech firm Phycal Inc. explained how his company is entrenched in algae scale-up initiatives, particularly in Hawaii. The company, which has its headquarters and a pilot plant and R&D operations in Cleveland, has an algal biotechnology laboratory located in St. Louis where staff conduct strain development research. Additionally, Phycal is in the process of building a 150,000 gallon per year pilot plant in Hawaii where it will focus on the production of three target products: an algal biocrude that will be blended with residual fuel oil for power generation by local utilities, renewable jet fuel and renewable diesel. Following pending success of its pilot project, Bargiel said Phycal intends to scale up to a 3 MMgy demonstration facility sometime between the 2014-‘15 timeframe, with plans to eventually bring online a 50 MMgy commercial facility shortly thereafter that.

“We are here to mostly talk about parity and energy security, especially in Hawaii, which has the highest energy prices in the U.S. because they have to import almost all of their energy,” Bargiel said. “Ninety percent of their baseload power comes from burning oil and they’d like to have a local source of that oil other than petroleum. We’re looking to capture that market.”

During the Q&A session with members of the media, a question was asked as to if the industry was seeing equal growth in each segment of the algae value chain, or if there were deficiencies that must be met to get the industry to scale.

Tim Burns, CEO of BioProcess Algae LLC and ABO member, explained how extraction, or dewatering, technologies are areas that seem to be lagging right now when it comes to optimizing downstream operations of the entire chain. BioProcess Algae outfitted its novel algal cultivation and harvesting technologies at Green Plains Renewable Energy Inc.’s 50 MMgy corn-ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa, where it can produce biodiesel, ethanol and animal feed.

“You’re seeing companies that are producing algae, and at scale, but that need to also introduce those technologies that are available into the downstream process,” Burns said. “It’s starting to take shape and that area [dewatering and extraction] does require additional development.”

Kevin Shurtleff, who leads the Algae Energy Systems branch at Energy Dynamics Laboratory, a nonprofit research corporation owned by Utah State University, explained how embracing the fully-integrated model has worked for his team in addressing the extraction/dewatering step in algae processing.

“The technologies for dewatering are not optimized yet, but there are certainly technologies available out there that make this available,” Shurtleff said.

Shurtleff noted that USU researchers have developed, and are in the process of scaling, a novel one-step acid transesterification process where they can add the dry algae biomass to directly convert neutral lipids, including phospholipids, into fatty acid methyl esters. He added that he’s looking to work with existing biodiesel producers that may be willing to incorporate the university’s one-step acid transesterification process in conjunction or in place of the common alkaline transesterification reaction.

“We think their technology could be applied to acid transesterification and we could actually start using the algae directly to make biofuels,” Shurtleff said.

The ABO visit consisted of more than 40 meetings with various members of Congress, including legislative briefings and an industry reception that recognized leaders of Congress for their roles in advancing algae for fuels. 


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