Blue Marble, UM partner to optimize algal biomass utilization

By Bryan Sims | December 15, 2011

While the utilization of algal biomass for the production of biobased specialty chemicals isn’t a new concept for Seattle-based Blue Marble Biomaterials at its integrated biorefinery in Missoula, Mont., Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer James Stephens said the company remains committed to the age-old philosophy of “using the whole animal” as evidenced by its newly-formed private/public research partnership with the University of Montana.

The new partnership with UM, according to Stephens, aims to leverage ongoing research by Carrine Blank, a research assistant professor at UM’s geosciences department, and Nancy Hinman, a geosciences professor, who’ve discovered a unique class of algal organisms that have unique metabolic pathways that can use alternative metabolic resources to produce biomass before photosynthesis occurs. A paper is expected to be published by Blank and Hinman based on the research between UM and Blue Marble.

Stephens added that the research partnership with UM is a prime example how university research can aid private industry in its scale-up efforts while simultaneously providing economic vitality.

“As we looked at the technology, Blue Marble has always been about fostering cooperation not only on a business-to-business level, but we also do a lot of partnerships with companies to help assist them and they help assist us to kind of try to create an ecosystem work,” Stephens told Biorefining Magazine. “We also believe in fostering that on a public/private level.”

Blue Marble’s integrated biorefinery in Missoula recycles nearly 100 percent of its water through a reverse osmosis system, which saves more than 26,000 gallons of water per month. Recycled water is returned and used in the company’s algae remediation systems. In addition, the company has devised novel pathways to recycle biogas, which then enters an algae-based photobioreactor system developed by partner Bionavitas where it’s populated with several microalgae strains. The remaining biogas is routed to a proprietary pyrolysis and gasification unit where emissions and excess undergo a thermochemical process to become pyrolysis oil.

While the biorefinery is only producing several thousand kilograms per month the company expects to be delivering samples of biochemicals to its commercial partners later this year with purchase orders expected to go out the door by first quarter next year. Potential chemical products derived from algae produced at Blue Marble’s biorefinery include organic fertilizers, natural pigments, food flavorings, fatty acids for biofuels, cholesterol-reducing compounds for food additives and natural anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer drugs.

Stephens, a UM alum, said Blue Marble has previously done extensive work with algal biomass both in remediation and potentially in product production, adding that finding ways to incorporate novel algal technologies into its waste recycling system was a key driver behind the decision to partner with UM.

“We know if you’re doing any kind of fermentation you’re going to end up with nitrogen and phosphorus waste and you’re going to end up with a biogas stream that’s going to have carbon dioxide and maybe other trace materials in it,” Stephens said. “You have to do something with it. We knew we always had planned moving forward once we found the right technologies for utilization and growth to utilize that to clean up our wastewater, make sure we’re a zero discharge facility and clean up our biogas so the emission profiles are low.”

As Blue Marble moves forward, Stephens said the company intends to form partnerships with several other algae companies who have alternative algae bioreactor pathways as well.

“We’re working at compiling multiple bioreactor systems into an ecosystem,” Stephens said. “The technology we’re using right now is absolutely great for the work we’re doing as it can produce a significant amount of biomass and it’s fairly easy to work with. But, as we’re moving forward there’s going to be a lot of things as we look at scaling and flow-through and handling all of the wastewater. We’re going to move away from batch fermentation to a kind of continuous culture production of the algal biomass.”