The Commercialization of Algae

By Kolby Hoagland | October 04, 2013

In the wild, algae grow rapidly when appropriate conditions and nutrients are present. Confined to photobioreactors or production ponds, the proficient growth rates of algae have not yet generated matching profits for the companies producing and utilizing algae to produce biofuels and biobased products. The nascency and highly technical nature of the algae industry continues to make revenue generation from the sale of algae elusive but not a far-off reality. Having just returned from the Algae Biomass Summit, I can say that the health and growth of the industry remain positive with companies and organizations continuing to land investment that push algae companies to commercial scale.

The tremendous potential of algae maintained an elevated level of excitement at the Summit and around the industry. Commercial scale algae production will provide an array of feedstocks at large quantities for the biofuels and bioproducts industries. Palm, the second most prolific biogenic source for oil, produces 610 gallons of oil per acre per year, while algae can produce 10,000 gallons per acre per year with current technologies. Furthermore, the diversity of the algal genome allows for the production of numerous basic building blocks for common industrial products other than biofuel, such as high protein animal feed, plastics, and high value chemicals.  Industries that have historically relied on fossil based feedstocks are working with many of the presenters, exhibitors, and sponsors that were in attendance at this year’s Summit for algae based feedstock options.

I would be remiss not to mention the issues that are holding the commercialization of algae back from the rapid growth that characterize the organism. The energy needed to dewater algae once harvested continues to pose an energy balance issue. Contamination from non-beneficial species hampers the long-term economics of raceway ponds and other exposed algae production systems. Financial investors are reluctant to pursue algae as an unproven technology, making funds difficult to acquire. Luckily, this year's Summit had numerous examples where these issues were addressed with innovation and doubts regarding the algae industry were contradicted.

Held in Orlando this year, the Algae Biomass Summit featured a tour of Algenol, a leader in the algae based biofuel sector. Paul Wood, Algenol’s charismatic CEO, welcomed the tour at their Fort Meyer, Fla. pilot plant where we saw how he and his team are producing ethanol while sequestering carbon at a rapid rate. According to Paul, algae is the only true carbon-capture strategy worth pursing. Tour attendees also viewed his new vertical photobioreactor, which changed recently from Algenol’s previous horizontal trough system, along with the many labs and integrated biorefinery. The tour was interesting and well attended, particularly given Paul and Algenol’s previous secrecy regarding their Fort Meyer pilot plant.  

The coming year is slated to be a breakout year for algae with the announcement of commercial scale sites by Sapphire Energy and Algenol. Are we on the doorstep of the commercialization of algae based biofuels and biobased products? The coming year will tell. Next year's Summit will be held in San Diego where Sapphire is head-quarted.