And Algae Shall Inherit the Earth


In October, I touched on the promise of biofuels as part of a larger revolution in consumer biology. The recent emergence of biofuels on the political agenda is worthy of note. It is clear that the world’s dependence on fossil fuel is strained on two fronts: the projection that global supplies will eventually run out, and the need to reduce greenhouse emissions and alter the course of global warming.

The world’s largest user of fossil fuels is the United States, mostly for transportation fuel. Therefore, changes to the way that the US uses fossil fuels and any moves to use alternatives are highly significant drivers to the alternative fuels market. Recently, there has been three key developments, all driven by the US, that have created a ‘perfect storm’ of opportunity for strategically placed companies, including well-positioned start-ups.

Firstly, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s new set of Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) regulations requiring 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into gasoline and diesel by 2022. Secondly, regulations due to start in 2015 will require all ships operating within a US designated area, called the Emissions Control Area (an area that includes Canada, Alaska, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico), to use fuel with less than 0.1% sulfur content (1,000 parts per million). Essentially, opening up the potential for cruise operators and others to now seriously consider using biofuels. Thirdly, and most significantly, the news from last August that the Departments of Energy, Defense, and Agriculture will commit $510 million to build a viable biofuels industry able to provide half of the US Navy’s fuel needs by 2020 – a staggering 5 billion gallons each year. This last measure is born from both strategic and economic needs. The cost of a barrel of oil continues to rise and the Straits of Hormuz is growing more vulnerable in a political game of chess.

The biofuels industry is now in a position where it needs to truly live up to its early promise. Can the implementation of the various novel technologies developed over the last decade finally lead to the production of scalable and economically viable biofuel? Clearly, the US Navy thinks so. So, does the world’s leading economic thinkers. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a month or so ago, Solazyme (from California) and Joule Unlimited (from Massachusetts) were named two of 2012’s class of Technology Pioneers. Surely an indication that biofuels time has come.

The market is already here but limited by the costs. Many major companies are now buying biofuel and making plans to integrate it into their current usage. Petroleum corporations such as Chevron, domestic airlines like Continental and Alaska Airlines, even the airline manufacturer Boeing, are either customers of, or working with biofuels companies. It is interesting that, in this particular area, the US may be playing second fiddle, at least in terms of scale and chronology, to Brazil, who many consider clear leaders in the field. However, the US is catching up fast. States involved in biofuel production include Iowa, Montana, Washington, Arizona, and North Carolina.

In my opinion, the most promising source of biofuel is likely to be from microalgae and not from the variety of other feedstocks being currently used. Most importantly, it is not part of the human food chain. The US Navy incidentally imposed the criteria that their own biofuels must not be derived from feedstock that would impact human food resources.

As the most prolific organism on the planet, it has a lot going for it. George Church’s Joule Unlimited, and Craig Venter’s Synthetic Biology continue to race to develop the most optimal genetically modified strain of microalgae. Critically, it thrives on carbon dioxide, a commodity that the planet is desperately trying to find a use for. Furthermore, as a side product it produces oxygen which can be used, among other things, to de-acidify ocean water and protect fragile coral reefs.

Compared to other feedstocks, algae produce 30x more energy per unit, and can be grown on brackish, even polluted water. Already, in Canada, it has been used to remove ammonia, nitrate, phosphate, and pathogens from wastewater. So, what’s not to like?

Sure there are still challenges and some technical risks but as we define more accurately the efficiency of each of the individual parts of a microalgae bioreactor system (e.g light source, optics, gas handling, sensors, temperature, pH, pumps, and so on), these diminish. I believe the next decade will belong to the algae.

Chris Hillier

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