Marine algal biodiesel in Bermuda

Marine algae paste

Marine algae paste

Just caught this April, 2010, video of Dr. Michael Lomas making biodiesel from marine algae of the Sargasso Sea.  He’s getting yield of “about 1/2 coffee cup or 4-6 oz” of concentrated (1/100th human hair mesh opening) paste from an 80 liter culture.

Still no mention of open-ocean culture.  It’s all about scaling closed incubators up by 1000x volume.

State of the algae industry

Notes from a meeting of the Northwest Biodiesel Network during which Dr. Margaret McCormick, COO of Targeted Growth Inc. (TGI), spoke about the “State of the Algae Biofuels industry”

My notes:

TGI buisiness model —

  • Increase yield w/genes
  • Camolina and algae (focus on Cyanobacteria because easier to engineer — just pour genes on!)
  • Sustainable fuels

During meeting, UW Professor Rose Anne Cattolico stood out as expert on algae
Her friend Brian had strong opinions and insights into Imperium and investment activity in the sector

Bioalgae is a local company which sent a couple reps to this meeting.

Algae Biodiesel Organization (ABO) is national organization that promotes the development of viable commercial markets for renewable and sustainable commodities derived from algae.  They have run 4 Annual Algae Biomass Summits.
Slide regarding theoretical (yet to be reached) yield of oil from algae vs other plants (in gallons/acre):

  • 2-3000 algae
  • 635 palm
  • 202 jatropha
  • 127 canola
  • 61 mustard
  • 48 soy
  • 35 cotton
  • 18 corn

Other corporations focusing on GMO:
Sapphire, algenol, solazyme

Pipeline of algae industry:

  • Biology (auto vs hetero)
  • Cultivation
  • Harvesting
  • Extraction (Cold press gets 33% of seed oil, rest w/solvents)
  • Conversion to products; examples:
    • Some corporations focusing on ethanol from algae
    • TGI jet fuel 10^5 gal production in Texas
    • Darpa funding of General Atomics to produce $2/gal jet fuel
  • Sales & distribution (likely to happen through existing infrastructure controlled by big petroleum companies)

Biofuels road map

  • 200 M$ DOE
  • USDA loan to Sapphire
  • DOD jet fuel purchase from Solazyme
  • 52 M$ Solazyme (Branson)
  • 15 Aurora biofuels
  • 30 Joule
  • PetroAlgae filed IPO

Pilots (online in next 2y):

  • Sapphire
  • Algenol/Dow ethanol cyanobact
  • Phycal  24$M hawaii sequestratn
  • 300 M$ Synthetic Genomics/Exxon
  • 300 M$ Exxon marketing
  • Solazyme

Existing projects and other players —

  • Cyanotech 93 acres HI
  • MarTec omega3/6 for babies
  • Unilever
  • Dupont
  • Lindy
  • Solix
  • Solana

The future?

  • ABO forecast 2015 — 300,500 Mgal/yr prodctn/capacity
  • 2020 Sapphire 1 Bgal/yr
  • 2015 220 in/direct jobs

Co-products —

  • Fodder, fish  (livefuel biomass)
  • C capture
  • Fertilizer
  • Chemicals
  • Neutraceuticals
  • Fresh H2O remediation
  • Food ingredients
  • Health food
  • Pharmaceuticals

Meeting announcement:

Is Algae close to being a viable commercial feedstock for the biodiesel/biofuel industry? What is the reality and what is the hype? What can we expect to see in the near future? Where is the algae industry headed? What are the environmental implications of Algae?

The NW Biodiesel Network is pleased to present John Pierce, co-founder and Board member of the Algal Biomass Organization. This organizations mission is to promote the development of viable commercial markets for renewable and sustainable commodities derived from algae. Get your questions answered! 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm, Phinney Neighborhood Center, 6532 Phinney Ave. North, Seattle WA 98103 (click image to the left for a map to the PNA).

Update: About Our Speaker

John F. Pierce sends his regrets, but he was called away on business on very short notice.
But in his place will be Dr. Margaret McCormick of Targeted Growth Inc..  We are very pleased to have her come present to us, and are looking forward to getting her perspective on the state of the Algae Biofuels industry!  Thank you Ms McCormick, for filling in on such short notice!

Dr. McCormick is on the Board of the Algal Biomass Organization, and has been with TGI since 2008, managing the company’s Bio-Based Materials program as well as leading various company-wide efforts including legislative and intellectual property strategy.  Prior to joining TGI, Dr. McCormick was a partner with Integra Ventures where she led Integra’s biotechnology investment strategy and its investment in TGI.  Prior to joining Integra, she was the founding president and COO of Sapphire Therapeutics (formerly Rejuvenon Corp.). Earlier in her career she was a consultant with McKinsey & Company. Dr. McCormick earned a Ph.D. in Biology (with a focus on metabolic engineering) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a BS degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

NASA working on algae filtering

Interesting idea (from this article) to use a membrane suspended in water to isolate the crop, but it’s equivalent to a greenhouse in the ocean — a biofouling nightmare me thinks.

There has got to be a way to do it — sustainably farm the open HNLC expanses of ocean — with all the right analogs: organic fertilizer, crop rotation, natural biocontrols (“beneficial planktivores?”), windrows and combines, watermills and composting.

Excerpt from the Berkeley algae lab story:


AC: What are you doing for NASA?

AB: We’re developing large-scale systems that are combining biofuel and fertilizer production with wastewater treatment and production of fresh air and fresh water. We’re using large membrane enclosures floating in bodies of water. It’s a low-energy, low-resource way of growing algae.

One budding thing of NASA technology – we’re working on a clever way of removing algae from water.

We’re focused on the biofuel aspect at NASA. For biofuel, you want a species that produces a lot of oil. Many species of algae can produce huge amounts of oil — they can be more than 50 percent oil by weight, compared to normal plants that only produce a few percent.

Algae can produce about 100 times more than typical oil plants like soybeans, on a per acre basis. You can grow enough algae to replace all of the fossil fuel in an area that’s small enough to be manageable. You don’t need to use farmland, there’s not much remaining in the world ready to be used, and you don’t need fresh water. The nice thing about algae is while they cleans water and air, they can produce very valuable things like fuel, fertilizer and food. They’re precursers for bioplastics, cosmetics and medicines.

It’s a new kind of farming, potentially very low impact and sustainable.

U Mich makes algal crude in minutes

A Wired article (thanks Mike!) that got me thinking about how much of crude oil’s energy is geologic, rather than photosynthetic.  Upon deposition of biogenic sediments, there is tectonic transport, geothermal heating, and compression in subduction zones or beneath additional deposits.  How to account for these energetic contributions?

Also, the researchers’ general approach seems sort of sloppy.  A good terrestrial farmer would harvest a crop (of plants), mechanically process it into products, and compost/recycle the “waste.”  Here the crop of algae appears to be simply cooked en mass (including with water) into crude with little analysis of how distillation or cracking would generate products from the resultant soup.  Given that we have the option of processing the crop before cooking it (which was long-missed for fossil fuels), is it more efficient to process before attempting thermo-baro-chemical transformations, or to crack apart the goo once cooked? 

Indo-German iron experiment begins

At first glance this LOHAFEX experiment looks to be a step forward.  Understanding the longer-term evolution of carbon (and other) fluxes is a short-coming of past iron fertilization experiments.  This article suggests they will monitor the patch for about two months.

Printed from
Germany clears Indo-German Antarctic expedition

27 Jan 2009, 2307 hrs IST, Amit Bhattacharya, TNN

NEW DELHI: Ending days of suspense and anxiety for the Indo-German team of scientists sailing in the cold and desolate waters off Antarctica, the German government on Monday gave the go-ahead to a controversial ocean-seeding experiment that experts say could lead to a way of fighting climate change.

“This is the best Republic Day gift we could have hoped for,” S W A Naqwi, leader of the 29-member Indian scientific contingent aboard the ship, RV Polarstern, told TOI on email from the vessel. The expedition, called LOHAFEX, is now in the process of dropping 20 tonnes of iron sulphate across a 300-sq-km patch in the South Atlantic Ocean to study the resulting explosion of plant life that’s expected suck CO2 gas from the atmosphere and store it below the ocean.

The German government had put the expedition on hold, days after the scientists set sail from Cape Town on January 7, following protests from environmental groups. These groups said the experiment would breach an international moratorium on ocean iron fertilization (OIF) – as the technique is called – and could damage the marine ecology of the region.

“The last few days were full of anxiety. But we were confident that this would pass, and did not allow ourselves to be distracted from the task at hand. As a result, the suspension has not affected our work schedule at all. Right now, of course, everyone is excited and greatly pleased,” Prof Naqwi, who teaches at National Institute of Oceanography, said.

The “all-clear” came from the German ministry of education and research after the experiment was reviewed by three independent agencies – the British Antarctic Survey, Institute for Marine Research, Kiel, and the German Environmental Agency. “After a study of expert reports, I am convinced there are no scientific or legal objections against the… ocean research experiment LOHAFEX,” German research minister Annette Schavan said in a statement.

The scientists utilized the period of suspension to prepare for the experiment. “We have selected and surveyed a suitable ‘eddy’, a body of water that does not exchange much with the rest of the ocean. It’s located at 49S, 16W. After we got the green signal, we have filled the tanks with iron sulphate solution in seawater and began discharging this solution on Tuesday morning. The operation will take around 30 hours,” Naqwi said.

The iron seeding is expected to result in a rapid explosion of phytoplankton, an algae that quickly dies and sinks into the ocean along with the CO2 it absorbs during photosynthesis. “We will make regular observations inside and outside the fertilized patch, monitoring the evolution and demise of the algal bloom until early March,” Naqwi said.

OIF is seen as a promising geo-engineering method to trap billions of tonnes of CO2 below the ocean if conducted on a large scale.

LOHAFEX, the biggest and most comprehensive study of the method, is expected to provide vital answers about its efficacy and the effects it could have on marine ecology. With the method generating a lot of interest from private companies seeking to profit from it in the carbon trade market, a comprehensive scientific study will help policymakers frame appropriate laws on OIF.

Robin Kodner: Bringing genomics to geobiology

Fate of the organic molecules generated by primary productivity in the surface ocean:

  • carbohydrates, proteins, and nucleic acids (biological pump acts on these)
  • lipids and structural polymers (diagenesis turns these into organic fossils, kerogen, & bitumen (oil)

Organismal part of talk (examples of sterols used as biomarkers)

  1. diversity of sterols and steranes (branches can indicate phylogeny)
  2. C_30 isopropylcholesterol likely associated with sponges

Population level (metagenomics)

  1. C_29 steranes (dominant [relative to C28} in Paleozoic)
  2. One explanation is that C29 may be typical of green algae, while C28 indicate modern phytoplankton (that arose ~200 Mya)
  3. But C29 sterols are made by MANY eukaryotes.  Green algae (Charophyceae) are implicated because they have a good fossil record back into the Paleozoic).
  4. Ternary diagram shows that Prasinophytes (likely modern analog of the Paleozoic green algae) have lower C29/C28 ratio than groups of green algae [Kodner, Geobiology, 2008]
  • Advantage of studying modern orgs is that nucleic acids are available for taxonomic survey, in addition to lipids.
  • Sequence a aggregated sample, compare with sequence database, use search alignment tool (BLAST), and compare with reference sequences to get reference phylogeny

My Qs:

Where does all the sulfur come from in crude oil?

Is it clear that diagenesis does not degrade sterol structure?  If so, what organisms generated the fossil molecules we call fuel?

Liquid fuels from algae start-ups

Blue Marble Energy of Seattle

AXI of Seattle (Allied Minds investors from MA supporting UW algae researcher Rose Cattolico)

Bionavitas Inc., of Redmond

Inventure Chemical Inc. of Seattle

Sapphire Energy of San Diego, CA

  1. formed in May 2007, Chief Executive Jason Pyle
  2. “green crude” 91 octane gasoline from algae microorganisms
  3. doesn’t absorb water like ethanol and biodiesel, so can be transported in existing pipeline infrastructure
  4. goal is 10k barrel/day from desert ponds
  5. “Almost every other [alternative fuel company] out there is a refiner,” says Robert Nelsen, managing director at ARCH Venture Partners. “They are taking something and refining it. We are producing something.”
  6. “We wanted to find something that you could scale infinitely.”
  7. “We’ve talked to people in the oil industry who’ve said, ‘This is the first thing I’ve seen that can change the game,'” says Nelsen.

I think their web site is (intentionally?) confusing.  Are they producing the equivalent of fossil crude oil from microalgae and then refining it to gasoline (and presumably other products), or are producing gasoline directly from microalgae?  I *think* they’re doing the latter.  But the former is the much better idea — producing crude oil from phytoplankton grown today, rather than digging up primary production from 300 million years ago — for it could go straight into the existing refinery infrastructure and generate all of the current cracked products (and by-products): tar, plastics, diesel, gas, butane, methane, hydrogen; sulfur.

Solazyme of South San Francisco, CA

biodiesel from algae

Amyris Biotechnologies of Emeryville, CA

developing renewable fuels chemically identical to gasoline, jet fuel and diesel. Amyris announced in April that it will develop diesel fuel in Brazil from sugarcane, with a production target date of 2010.


Forbes, May 2008 article

UW News article, August 27, 2008