US biodiesel refiners mull if algae research will benefit them

09 February 2010 23:27  [Source: ICIS news]

GRAPEVINE, Texas (ICIS news)--With billions of dollars spent on trying to produce a commercially viable algae-based biofuel, some US biodiesel producers at the 2010 National Biodiesel Conference on Tuesday asked whether they would get to taste the fruits of that research.

More than $1bn (€730m) was invested in algae biofuels in 2009 alone, about 70% of it from private companies, according to data from the Algal Biomass Organization.

In 2009, ExxonMobil alone invested $600m on bringing the process to a commercial scale. 

Part of its investment went to Synthetic Genomics, (SGI) , a bio-technology company started by J Craig Venter, one of the people responsible for first mapping the human genome.

Part of SGI's research is to develop a strain of algae that secretes hydrocarbons. The process for harvesting the fuel would be much easier than the methods employed by most algae-fuel research teams.

But with private companies doggedly pursuing commercialisation of algae fuels, some biodiesel producers are worried that their industry as a whole well be left out of the technological know-how necessary to turn the green organisms into green fuel.

"I'm surprised that anyone thinks this will be a saving grace for the industry," said one producer at the conference who asked to remain anonymous. "If Exxon makes a breakthrough tomorrow, they're not going to make it available to the rest of the industry."

Many biodiesel advocates see algae as the pinnacle of feedstocks. The organism can be grown virtually anywhere and has the potential to produce more oil than any other bio-mass diesel feedstock. Unlike other biofuel feedstocks such as soybeans and corn, it exists outside the parameters of the food-versus-fuel debate, wherein critics say biofuel production robs society of edible grains. 

Enough breakthroughs have been made in algae fuel development that Richard Sayre, director for the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuel in St. Louis, Missouri, said his labs can produce a gallon of algae-based biodiesel for $4.40/gal at the refinery level. 

"Algae has the greatest potential for the most amount of oil per given land region," Sayre said. "We can also use it to capture carbon dioxide from coal plants."

For its part, the US Department of Energy (DOE), awarded more than $100m in grants for bio-mass and algae-based energy in 2009.

Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the Algal Biomass Organization said that there will not be one "saving grace" for the industry, which has been beleaguered by fluctuating feedstock prices. But in the algae-fuel sphere, she said she is sure that the biodiesel industry as a whole will be able to gain entry into the field, even if most of the work is done by private parties. 

"There is an interest for that to occur," she said.   

($1 = €0.73)

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