The near-perfect model for mass algae development

If algae developers could model their cultivation practices after any other industry on the planet, which industry should it be? The answer is, without a doubt, agriculture.
| April 29, 2011

If algae developers could model their cultivation practices after any other industry on the planet, which industry should it be? Most experts would probably laugh that the answer isn’t obvious at this point, but just in case, the answer is, without a doubt, agriculture. Why? Picture this. You’re driving down a gravel road with your window rolled down on a warm, muggy night somewhere in Iowa or Ohio. There’s a sheen of humidity creeping up from the bottom of your windshield, and on either side of the road drooping green corn stalks stretch out as far as you can see. On the horizon a cloud front shaped like a dark grey pillow is pushing your way, growing larger and larger by the second.

This is a nearly perfect scene for a grain farmer. Their hardwork, time and most importantly, investment have all aligned in the right place at the right time, set up for moments just like this.  And better yet, months later, after that rain storm has passed and those green stalks dry out and turn pale yellow, those farmers know exactly how, when and where their investment will go. That’s not even the end of it. Along the way, if any of those clouds drop out hail or bring heavy winds, they’re covered. If pests of any kind start to show up, they’ve got methods for eradication. Ag producers have it figured out. They know their markets (feed and ethanol), they’ve created a repeatable method of production that is constantly evolving and getting better, they have the infrastructure to move Iowa corn to India, and it would be hard to find a governmental institution in any country that doesn’t support them in some way.

It’s clear why algae experts point towards this industry as the model for success. The only problem is, what is the algae industry doing to get there? A lot, actually. While it may seem like research and development methods are focused more on extraction and strain selection, there are efforts, especially like those of Qiang Hu of Arizona State University, that show algae could be on its way to a similar scenario as agriculture. Hu, like most experts, hopes algae will become a recognized crop by the USDA, and that it will garner the same benefits and support as other crops do. But, until then, he’s still treating algae cultures like any stand of corn in some Iowa cornfield and acting like any responsible farmer would. Hu is researching how to protect algal cultures from pests.

“These days, people don’t talk much about crop protection or biological threats in algae mass culture,” Hu told me. So, Hu is looking at the types of bugs (like zooplankton or amoeba) that can ruin a culture in a few days to a week, and searching for both readily available chemical answers that could eradicate the problems as well as the potential to create new pesticides specific for algae.

While it might not be appropriate to drop the title of Dr. or professor in front of Hu’s name in place of the word farmer, it’s important to note the work he is doing. After all, he’s searching for ways to protect mass cultures, not the lab-scale cultures in a small raceway, he’s thinking about ensuring the well-being of acres and acres of algae. Sounds like something an agricultural expert might approve of, and, something that might even help make this happen. Picture it. You’re driving with the window rolled down again, on a gravel road, on a warm night in Arizona or New Mexico. On both sides of the road, massive algal cultures float in enormous open ponds. Sounds like a perfect scene for an algae farmer.