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.

7 thoughts on “The big boys of industry move into next-generation algae fuels”

  1. You pointed out that Algenol’s technology originated with a Canadian in Toronto. In my mind, the “patron saint” of concentrated solar thermal is Canadian John Mills of Ausra. His compact linear Fresnel technology was developed in Australia but commercialized in the US. We have him to thank, in large part, for today’s huge pipeline of solar thermal power generation projects. Likewise, I appreciate Zenn Motor’s investment and relentless promotion of EESTOR.

  2. Finally. I’ve been waiting for algae biofuels for years. I think one of big issues right now was the lack of public understanding that corn ethanol etc is just a means to an end. In other words, you’ve got use a not-so-good-but-available feedstock to test the systems, understand the fail points etc. Once you’ve got a good, solid system, the feedstock gets changed to something that’s actually ROEI positive. I figured that once that happened, the big money would step in and everything would change.

    Here’s hoping that things are finally getting going.


  3. Algae secreting ethanol!

    Dalhousie U. is a Canadian connection to Cellana (Shell subsidiary) – alga into oil. One of the Canadian researchers working for them in Hawaii is Dr. John Cullen.

    Dr. Cullen is a specialist in culturing techniques, ocean optics and physical influences on marine ecosystems. One of the most highly cited scientists in his field, Dr. Cullen has done-ground-breaking research in microalgal physiology ranging from photosynthesis, effects of UV radiation, to optically-based models of primary productivity and food web structure. Prof. Cullen holds the Killam Chair in Ocean Studies at Dalhousie University.

  4. Without any intention of being a cynical skeptic, the idea of a cell producing ethanol inside of it, and then exudating this ethanol to the surrounding media, in any amount that could be of real practical use, knowing that ethanol in any citoplasm is toxic, seems far fetched. Then, separating any low concentration of ethanol from an aqueous media is another feat, energy and infrestructure consuming.

    Would’nt it be better to harvest a rich in hicrocarbon algae biomass as a direct powdered fuel for biomass burning centrals? I mean, if we cannot even do this late thing economically feasible, then what can we expect for other microalgae for fuel ideas?

  5. Curbina,

    It seems they have developed algae that can survive high concentrations of ethanoI…after all yeast can survive up to 18% alcohol. But I agree their big problem will be separating out between the ethanol and the water. I wonder why they didn’t try to develop this with butanol producing algae…butanol separates out from water naturally without distillation. And as opposed to ethanol, it can be added to fuel without modifications. I know they have bacteria that can do it.

  6. Werner Friesland mentions CSP technology;

    Some of the biggest companies in the world including Deutsche Bank, Munich Re, Abengoa Solar, and Siemens signed an MOU for a $500 billion DESERTEC Intiative- the biggest proposed solar project in the world by far a couple of weeks ago.

    Saving the world doesn’t come cheap. This project aims to make the price of solar power equivalent with coal by mass production of CSP materials and generators while also providing abundant clean water to N.Africa while also providing effective energy storage using molten salt.

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