Not Your Father’s Algae

By Mary Rosenthal | April 19, 2011

Those of us of a certain vintage will remember an advertising slogan from years ago that told viewers “this is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” The progress the U.S. algae industry has made in just the past five years reminds me of that slogan—the algae technology today is vastly different from the U.S. DOE’s Aquatic Species Program of the 1970s and 1980s. This is not your father’s algae.

As the contents of this issue make quite clear, two separate but closely related trends make this an especially exciting time to be involved in algae: one, the growth in the number of sustainable end products and applications for algae; and two, the continued integration of algae technologies up and down the industry value chain.

Certainly, the development of algae-based fuels will continue to be a major focus of our industry. The growth of this sector has been remarkable; between 2005 and 2009 alone, the number of algae-to-energy startups more than tripled. Algae-based fuels have been successfully tested in a range of engines and vehicle types, and there are numerous demonstration- and commercial-scale facilities coming online in the next two years. Commercial production of algae-based transportation fuels is real, and it will happen sooner than many people think.

At the same time, a growing number of companies are exploring other algae end products and applications. This includes the production of algal biomass for both human and animal nutrition, including nutraceuticals. As the world seeks to increase global food supplies to meet demands of a growing population, there is no doubt that algae will be an important part of the solution. Companies and researchers are also using algae as a source for a range of other high-value bioproducts, including bioplastics, cosmetics, biochemicals, and pigments, to name just a few.

As you will also read in this issue, the unique ability of algae to biologically sequester and beneficially reuse carbon means that algae technologies are being deployed to help large-scale emitters address their carbon footprint. What many see from a process perspective as a waste stream—that is to say, carbon emissions—the algae industry sees as a high-value input in the production process. The co-location of algae production facilities with industrial emitters is a trend sure to stay.

While the number of products and applications for algae are continuing to expand, researchers, entrepreneurs and companies are finding ways to integrate the industry’s multifaceted value chain.

Many companies remain focused on algal biology, working to identify and in some cases enhance strains with defined yield characteristics and profiles, depending on the desired end products. Others remain focused solely on growth systems, whether autotrophic, heterotrophic, open or closed, indoors or outdoors. Still more are working hard on extraction and dewatering systems that are central to improving the overall economics of algae production. And a few are working on technologies in which algae directly secrete advanced biofuels.

And then there is the crucial component: a growing awareness among potential end users—from the U.S. Department of Defense to industrial emitters to food companies—of the potential of algae-based technologies and end products. This awareness is something we have worked hard to foster and will continue to do so. As companies begin to form strategic partnerships and identify mutual opportunities, it will further drive the industry’s growth.

Moving forward, look for these two important trends to continue: a growing range of end products and applications for algae, with the technologies to produce them becoming more closely tied together. And that is something that bodes well for the future.

Author: Mary Rosenthal
Executive Director, Algal Biomass Organization
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