Commercial-Scale Progress

Scaling up algae growth, harvesting and extraction technologies, and the companies facilitating commercial deployment
By Bryan Sims | March 19, 2012

Significant advancements and milestones were made this past year by several algae technology developers. Focused particularly on growth, harvesting and extraction (GHE) links within the supply chain, they are on the verge of supplying their methods and technologies to customers for commercial deployment. Among them is Golden, Colo.-based BioVantage Resources Inc. CEO Sue Kunz says her company’s approach to facilitating commercial-scale deployment for its customers doesn’t hinge on the traditional thought of metrology, or going from the clichéd “beakers to barrels.”

“We don’t measure productivity on grams per liters per day,” Kunz tells Algae Technology & Business. “We want to measure it in grams per liter per year because that’s the right measure when taking a commercialization approach.”

Founded in 2008, BioVantage Resources has a diverse staff with expertise ranging from mechanical engineering to optics. “We have a manufacturing and Six Sigma background,” Kunz says, “so we think along the lines of repeatable, reliable, cost-effective processes. That’s our forte.”

BioVantage Resources offers three main product lines designed to meet desired specifications by the client. The first, its bubble column reactors (BCR), features capacities designed and tested to perform well in a graduated, sequential scale-up from Erlenmeyer flask to 2-gallon BCR to 9.5-gallon BCR, and up to larger capacity inoculation systems for rapid, high-quality biomass aggregation. The company’s BCR offerings fold into its second product line, tank-based reactors for larger volumes of algae growth. The system’s modular design comprises up to 20-, 50- or 150-gallon growing tanks, one or more automated medium preparation systems and a system control center. Its third line includes custom aboveground or inground raceway pond designs with capacities of 500-plus gallons. The company also offers fully automated growth media preparation systems and paddlewheel components for open pond configurations.

New York-based algae cultivation technology developer Culture Fuels Inc. is harnessing the inherent benefits of both open pond and photobioreactor configurations through a low-cost, highly productive hybrid growth technology platform trademarked FloatAlgae, capable of cultivating algae strains irrespective of the strain or the final product market. Founded in 2010, Culture Fuels has been operating an outdoor pilot facility at the University of South Florida-Polytechnic in Lakeland testing selected strains of natural algae growth in three separate 100-liter FloatAlgae systems.

Culture Fuels CEO Lawrence Walmsley describes the FloatAlgae system as a closed bioreactor that floats on an open pond with the algae housed inside the reactor featuring an integrated aeration system allowing carbon dioxide to enter. “Because it’s floating in this heat sink, it holds its temperature so it doesn’t get too hot,” Walmsley explains, adding that a one-degree difference in outside and inner reactor water temperature can affect growth in certain algae species that are sensitive to temperature. “With the same algae strain, we can produce higher productivity than other systems if the water ends up getting too hot in other places.”

In addition to its low-capital profile, Walmsley highlighted additional benefits of the FloatAlgae technology: improved thermal control, higher biomass density due to low dewatering costs, reduced propensity for contamination, and scalability. Walmsley says the pilot facility at USFP will be used to showcase its proprietary FloatAlgae reactor system as it seeks institutional funding to complement matching state funds already obtained, for deployment of a demo facility near a one-acre landfill site owned by a Florida municipality. “The site is available now,” Walmsley says, adding that it has access to water, leachate runoff from the nearby landfill to help cultivate the algae, and carbon dioxide byproduct from the municipality’s methane-powered turbines. “It’s not just any location, but it’s a location that I believe is a great example of how this industry should develop.”

Commercial Clientele
Whether it’s customized paddlewheels or state-of-the-art centrifuges, developers and vendors say they’re experiencing growth in sales to clients interested in applying the equipment for commercial-scale applications. Robert Vitale, president of Franklin, N.C.-based Waterwheel Factory, a paddlewheel designer and supplier, is noticing several domestic and international algae developers moving from demonstration to commercial deployment. The company initially began building custom mechanical waterwheel devices 14 years ago. In 2008, it began supplying sturdy, energy-efficient paddlewheels for open algae ponds. Clients include General Atomics, Sapphire Energy, ExxonMobil, AlgaeVenture, plus universities such as Texas A&M Agrilife Research Center and AlgaeBioTech in Netherlands.

Vitale says most projects he deals with are up to 1,500 acres in scale and a number of them are “ready to bite the bullet,” he adds. “We’re at the point now where we’re beginning to jump into a serious mindset as to what it’s going to take to go commercial.”

Waterwheel Factory’s services go beyond manufacturing and supplying paddlewheels. It also provides water biochemistry monitoring, remote management and control, site equipment components, installation management consulting and some invaluable pro bono services, Vitale says. “We’ve been known to act as the client’s eyes.”

Netherlands-based algae harvesting technology developer Evodos recently announced Algae 2 Omega would be the first to purchase its new Type 250 centrifuge in development. Evodos CEO Marco Brocken says Algae 2 Omega will install the 250 centrifuge by end of year. It’s a larger version of Evodos’ Type 10 and Type 25 centrifuges designed for a flow of 40 cubic meters per hour and a solid discharge capacity of 500 liters per hour. The 250 uses the same spiral plate technology as all other Evodos centrifuges and is amenable for either PBR or open pond configurations. As all of Evodos’ harvesting machines, the algae are harvested as paste containing only live algae and less than 2 percent extracellular water, which helps extend shelf life. “We are talking with several companies that are at the forefront of taking the next step to commercialization,” Brocken says, adding that Evodos’ cheapest harvesting machine costs about $58,000. “You can always look at the price of the machine, but it’s the investment—or overall capital expense of the operation—that’s important.”

A foundation of partnerships, collaborations and alliances in industry is essential for algae commercialization. OpenAlgae LLC, a Houston-based algae developer formed in 2008 with help from the University of Texas Center for Electromechanics, has focused on optimizing and scaling three subareas within the GHE supply chain. After algae is harvested and water is recycled, OpenAlgae uses a novel lysing step to separate lipids from the algal cells. Vice President Peter Kipp says Open Algae’s approach is unique because it doesn’t require drying, hexane extraction or centrifugation steps. “We’re trying to take technologies that exist and are used at scale in other industries and apply them to algae,” Kipp says, “rather than try to do something that’s totally unorthodox and new. We’re trying to base everything on science that we know is scalable and we know we have a good idea of what the cost is.”

Another technique that differentiates OpenAlgae as an end-to-end solution, Kipp says, is its oil recovery technique, the final step, where it takes the complex mixture of oily water and broken algal cells (slurry) and pulls away the oil using a membrane separation process, leaving behind a completely de-oiled wet biomass. “That allows us to think about algae like a true commodity product,” Kipp says, “where we’ve actually separated the oil from the biomass and both streams maintain full value. That, to us, is where the industry has to go. Algae has to become a commodity if it’s going to reach the scale that people want it to reach.” In addition to working with UT, Kipp says OpenAlgae collaborates with partners like Waterwheel Factory and various other technology developers, and the company is open to dialogue with more. “We’re really talking to a lot of the leaders and it’s exciting,” Kipp says.

Like OpenAlgae, Toronto-based Pond Biofuels Inc. values the concept of partnerships for achieving its commercial-scale objectives. In January, Pond Biofuels launched the piloting of a unique 16,000-liter (4,227-gallon) algae bioreactor production system using LED lighting at St. Mary’s Cement with support of the Ontario government. The company is preparing to scale up to a 100,000-liter demo facility, which should be operational by mid-year. A commercial plant is expected to be in operation at St. Mary’s by 2014. Steve Martin, CEO and co-founder of Pond Biofuels, says the company’s commercialization approach is driven by a “pull” model—meaning it pulls together and integrates known, proven technologies that have demonstrated performance at industrial scale—rather than a “push” model of innovation. “There’s a comfort level there in terms of developing the technology in that way,” Martin says. “We don’t propel our ideas out into the marketplace and expect to have acceptance. We go to the market and see what they’re interested in accepting now, and we provide those to them as the solution to our project.”

As for BioVantage Resources, the company is deeply entrenched in partnerships with a number of private and public parties, including the Colorado School of Mines; Utah State University; Stewart Engineering, a Fort Collins, Colo.-based engineering firm that also tests alternative feedstocks; Evolutionary Genomics, a Lafayette, Colo.-based biotech company that has developed a proprietary adapted traits platform to identify specific genes that can be commercialized; and finally, Bio2 Solution, a Strasburg, Colo.-based algae solutions company that, like BioVantage, is working to develop and commercialize wastewater remediation technology, which uses algae.

“There’s great stuff going on and we’re excited about what we’ve seen,” Kunz says. “No small company can focus on the whole value chain. You’ve got to pick what you’re going to win at because, if you bite off more than you can chew, you will fail.”

Author: Bryan Sims
Associate Editor, Algae Technology & Business
(701) 738-4974