Algae for chems coming soon?

Excitement is palpable in the [carbon-dioxide laden] air of algae industry as big oils and chem firms recently jumped in to the development of algae as potential feedstock for fuel and chemicals.

Last week, ExxonMobil announced its $600m commitment in developing algae for biofuel feedstock with its partnership with Synthetic Genomics (SGI). The companies said it will It would take 5-10 years before any small-scale plants are up and running.

Last year, Chevron partnered with algae-fuel startup Solazyme in California while former executives from BP (according to ICIS news) started Sapphire Energy, another California-based biofuels company working with algae.

At the recent BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing event in Montreal, Canada, a session on algae revealed how close (or far) algae’s potentials are as feedstock for fuels and chemicals.

Dow Chemical’s Steve Gluck noted a bigger opportunity in the chemical industry for algae compared to biofuels. While most of the research on algae are focusing on biofuel application, Gluck said the economic and scale barriers for chemical feedstock maybe less of a challenge than those for providing a fuel.

“To get into the algae market, I think you might have to capture the chemical sector based on how much algae feedstock is needed in the chemical industry compared to the fuel refineries,” said Gluck. “Chemicals needed a pure material that algae can produced while fuels can have blended components.”

In 2005, global dried microalgae biomass production of algae was pegged at 10,000 tons, which is about 10% of what a signle chemical manufacturing plant needed compared ot 0.1% of what a single oil refinery size needed, added Gluck.

In terms of applications,Gluck noted the oleochemical industry as a better bet for algae used in chemicals. He estimated commercialization timeline for algae within 5-10 years.

Dow Chemical recently announced its plans to work with Algenol Biofuels to build and operate a pilot-scale algae-based integrated biorefinery that will convert CO2 into ethanol. The facility is planned to be located at Dow’s Freeport, Texas site.

Algenol’s Edward Legere presented about the potential impact of themuch-talked about carbon cap and trade or taxation regulation to thealgae industry. Algae depends on carbon dioxide as feedstock andaccording to Legere, the algae industry could benefit from variousoutcropping of carbon regulations.

“Carbon dioxide is one ofthe most costly and highly used feedstock for us and if this feedstockis now going to be forcely collected by government regulation, thatshould lower overall cost of feedstock for us and that leaves anopportunity for algae companies such as ours,” said Legere.

Algenolsaid the EPA currently identifies 14,200 stationary CO2 emitters in theUS alone. With its partnership with Dow, Algenol said it can use CO2from Dow’s nearby manufacturing facility, feed it into algae in thephotobioreactors, which will serve as the carbon source for the ethanolproduced. (More about that partnership on this NY Times article)

XL Renewables‘ BenCloud reported on the company’s operations of a commercial scale algaeproduction system called Super Trough in its Casa Grande, Arizona, demosite. The company is already selling biomass algae samples to themarket.

“Algae looked easy to growuntil you put it out on an open environment,” said Cloud. “We’reresearching on trying to bring down our operating costs and increasethe production.”

XL Renewables said compared to openpond/raceway systems, the agricultural-based production approach foralgae such as the company’s Super Trough system provides greatercontrol of production processes, low labor requirements, mechanicaloperations, in-field harvest technology and innoculation methods.

Dean Tsoupeis of Culturing Solutions,meanwhile, presented about their BioFence photobioreactor system whichcan produce high density monocultures of marine and freshwater algae.Tsoupeis noted that algae can produce up to 33,000 gallons of lipid oilper acre a year.

“The BioFence has been inproduction for the nutraceutical and protein markets for the past fiveyears, where it has yielded up to 140 grams per day in a 200-litersystem,” said Tsoupeis. “This output is much higher than a raceway pondor bag-type reactor.”

Although not part of the BIO presentations, I came across this market study about algae potential from Emerging Markets Online.The study estimated the markets for algae-based biodiesel, Biocrude,and biomass-derived green chemicals and plastics will start to enterearly-stage commercial production by the end of 2011.

“As of the summer of 2009, morethan $1 billion in private and public investment commitments since 2007have contributed to the acceleration of a surprising diversity ofalgae-based biofuels technologies, business models, and productstrategies,” said Will Thurmond, president of Emerging Markets Online.

“Overthe next 1000 days, the world will witness a series of emergingmarkets, technologies, players, and strategies for clean fuels,chemicals and co-products from algae. The first ventures will includeCO2-capture projects, government funded energy and defense initiatives,and early-stage commercial biofuels and biomass projects,” he said.

Outsideof biofuels, Thurmond said co-products from algae outside includinggreen polymers, chemicals and animal feed will play a decisive role inthe success of established and emerging algae production ventures.

Here are more recent articles about algae:

Algae-Based Biofuels Moving Ever So Slowly to Market –

25 Million euros for unique research into photosynthetic energy from plants and algae – Algae: The ultimate biofuel? | EU – European Information on Science & Research

Algae Biofuels Economic Viability: A Project-Based Perspective

Solix Biofuels Begins Large-Scale Production of Algae-Based Biofuels at Coyote Gulch Demonstration Facility

[First photo from, algae farm photo from Algenol, chart from Emerging Markets Online]

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