The big boys of industry move into next-generation algae fuels
I’ve got a lengthy feature in the Toronto Star this weekend about the recent wave of activity around algae as a source of renewable fuel. Now, in the past there has been no shortage of algae-to-biofuel startups — some have already failed, others have managed to raise money and continue to work away. But the new wave of startups — Algenol Biofuels, Catilin, Synthetic Genomics and others — have two things going for them. One, they’re overcoming one of the biggest economic obstacles, which is the difficulty and cost involved with harvesting algae so that they can be processed for their oils. Instead, these new startups are developing strains of algae that continuously produce and actively secrete oils and ethanol. By turning the algae cells themselves into microscopic refineries, several process steps can be eliminated along with costs. Second, these startups are also hooking up with some big partners in industry to demonstrate that their technologies can be scaled to a size that matters. Algenol has hooked up on a massive demonstration project in Texas with Dow Chemical, while Synthetic Genomics (Genomics pioneer Craig Venter’s company) recently snagged $300 million in funding from ExxonMobil, which has committed $600 million to algae fuel R&D and says it will contribute billions of dollars more if efforts over the next few years prove successful. Honeywell, by the way, is leading the charge in turning algae oils into green jet fuel, and it’s working with Boeing, Airbus and several major airlines to make it happen. Dow, Exxon, Honeywell — these are no corporate pansies. These are serious companies putting flesh in the game.
My feature, by the way, starts out focusing on Florida-based Algenol. Many don’t realize the company’s technology emerged out of research at the University of Toronto, and that founder Paul Woods is a Canadian who was born, grew up and ran a natural gas marketing business in Toronto before heading south at age 36. Algenol’s chief science officer, John Coleman, is the U of T professor who worked with Woods over the past 25 years to perfect the Algenol process.
I’ve said this in many posts before, but I’ll say it again: These are exciting times people. The engine of innovation is in high gear.