Pardon Me, Do You Speak Algae?

By Mary Rosenthal | October 03, 2011

The rapid growth and explosive innovation of algae technologies are creating unprecedented opportunities for job growth, economic development and intellectual property, all while promising to address some of the world’s most intractable problems, from climate change to energy and food supply.

Between 2005 and 2009 alone, the number of algae-to-fuels companies has more than tripled. And analysts project that the industry will grow by nearly 50 percent each year in the coming decade. With growing private investment in the industry and several demonstration- and commercial-scale facilities beginning construction or coming online this year, the rate of growth and innovation in the industry shows no sign of slowing.

And with this growth has come a stunning array of technologies, processes and approaches for growing, harvesting and refining algae into fuels and other byproducts. Operations vary greatly in both size and product—from small units producing specialty chemicals and nutraceuticals to large-scale facilities producing commercial quantities of advanced biofuels. Others still will produce massive quantities of biomass for food and feed.

On one hand, this is exciting and promising. On the other, it is creating headaches for investors, technologists, researchers, strategic partners and entrepreneurs as they try to evaluate algae technologies relative to one another through techno-economic analyses. It also makes it hard to perform life-cycle analyses and determine the carbon footprint of any given technology.

For example, how best to account for one facility using open ponds fed by a mix of wastewater and CO2 pumped from a gas line versus another facility using water sourced from a municipal water supply and fed by CO2 recycled from a nearby coal-fired power plant? Or one fed by CO2 emissions from an ethanol plant? Or one that uses trapped methane gas from livestock or dairy operations? Likewise, how best to account for the addition of a billion tons of animal feed resulting from the dry mass from dewatering? These are just a few of the interesting challenges that face anyone trying to accurately encapsulate and rate the benefits of an algae technology.

Unlike other industries, our industry has not yet developed a common approach or a common language, if you will, for evaluating technologies and business models. For instance, first-generation biofuels have the GREET (greenhouse gases, regulated emissions, and energy use in transportation) model whereas traditional businesses have the GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) model. These models provide an objective and trusted model for evaluating companies, impacts, etc.

As the trade association for the algae industry, the Algal Biomass Organization is working to develop such a model, or at least a foundation for a model, called a minimum descriptive language for characterizing economic and environmental inputs and outputs of an aquatic biomass operation. This project has been led by our all-volunteer Technical Standards Committee, which has been working since 2008 to develop standards and best practices for the algae industry and facilitate the flow of information among industry stakeholders.

Last December, the ABO and the Technical Standards Committee published its “Algal Industry Minimum Descriptive Language” document—the first attempt at establishing a common language for the algae industry. It provided a set of metrics and variables for measuring the economic and environmental footprint of an algae production facility, including all inputs and outputs.

The document reflects the input of more than 25 industry leaders, including representatives from trade associations, national labs, companies and research institutions. In addition, we published the draft on our website and invited public comments, constructive criticism, input and suggestions. Responses from this process, as well as further industry input, have helped us sharpen the document’s focus and create an even better foundation for cohesion in evaluating algae technologies. A revised version of the document was published on the ABO website this summer.

Through this document and ongoing efforts of people in the broader commercial and academic sectors, we hope to continually improve this approach to creating a common language for the comprehensive evaluation of algae production facilities. Not only will this be helpful to inform the techno-economic analyses upon which investors and strategic partners will base funding decisions, it will be critical for accurate life-cycle analyses that will drive public policies that will dramatically impact our industry.

Our hope is that this document, or one like it, will soon achieve the status of other models like GREET and GAAP and serve as the basis for evaluation of algae technologies today and into the future. Because whether you’re an algae entrepreneur, researcher, investor or end user, we all need to speak the same language.

Author: Mary Rosenthal
Executive Director, Algal Biomass Organization
(763) 458-0068