CGI annual meeting addresses algae, biofuels

By Erin Voegele | September 30, 2011

The production of advanced biofuels was one of many renewable energy topics addressed by speakers at the recent annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. During a keynote lunch address on green technology, Jonathan Wolfson, CEO and co-founder of Solazyme Inc. and Thomas Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for Energy, spoke about the importance of renewable fuels to our nation and its future.

“We are deeply committed to the work of the Clinton Global Initiative, and particularly the mission of turning big ideas into action through cross-sector partnerships,” Wolfson said. In fact, Solazyme partnered with the Navy to demonstrate commercial-scale production of algae oil.

 “We make oil,” Wolfson said. “Oil is the world’s principle fuel source, and it’s not going to lose that distinction anytime soon. Today there are three main sources of oil; petroleum, plant and animal. And, collectively they touch our lives every day in numerous ways, from things that we all know about—like the petroleum-based fuels in our cars—to things that are less obvious—like the plant oil in the paint on this wall in this room. Oils are a key ingredient in materials in modern society, and whether we like it or not, mankind is addicted to oil.”

In the developing world, Wolfson pointed out that the lack of oil resources can represent a barrier to development. In the developing world, oil is a resource that touches nearly every aspect of life. According to Wolfson, the price of oil addiction is not just economic, oil also destabilizes nations and economic systems.

Solazyme’s technology converts renewable, plant-based sugars into biobased oils via algae. The sugars are fed to algae in large stainless steel tanks, explained Wolfson. The algae consume the sugars and rapidly and efficiently convert those carbohydrates into oils. According to Wolfson, the technology can target the production of oils with very specific properties that are targeted for different applications. For example, some oils may be best suited for use as biodiesel feedstock, while others may be uniquely suited for conversion into drop-in biofuels or food and nutrition applications.

Wolfson spoke of how important the military has become to developing biorefining technologies. “There is no better problem solving organization in the world than the U.S. military,” he said. “Many of the problems the military encounters are potentially life or death, giving them the greatest incentive to encourage innovation, [and] also the most experience in doing so.”

During his speech, Hicks noted that the Navy, the U.S. Department of Defense—and America in general—relies too much on fossil fuels, and far too much on foreign sources of oil. “That dependency degrades our national security, negatively impacts our economy and ultimately causes harm to our planet” he said.

According to Hicks, several fuel convoys are needed every day in Afghanistan to move fuel needed for operations at forward operating bases. For every 50 of these convoys, one solider is killed or wounded. “That is too high a price to pay for fuel,” he said.

The expense of fuel is also an issue for the military. In an average year, Hicks said the Navy alone consumes approximately 30 million barrels of fuel. That means that for every $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil, the Navy has to spend an addition $30 million. In 2011 the cost of fuel went nearly $1 billion over budget because fuel prices increased $38 per barrel.

“In a very real way, we’re giving folks that have the power to control the price of those fuels a say in whether we sail our ships, or a say in whether we fly our aircrafts,” Hicks said. “That’s just an unacceptable level of risk.” To help overcome that risk, the DOD is partnering with the USDA and DOE to invest in the drop-in biofuels industry.



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