Algae as Fuel Grows on DOE Investment

Nearly $800M from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is being provided to hasten biofuel development through research and commercialization incentives through the U.S. Department of Energy Biomass Program. New and old biorefineries as well as key research towards ethanol and other advanced biofuels will receive much-called for assistance to urge onwards new energy sources, like biofuel from algae.

The majority of the funding ($480 million) will be going to integrated biorefinery projects at pilot and demonstration stages and the DOE anticipates making 10 to 20 awards of either $25 or $50M (depending on scale). The ARRA package will assist ethanol and advanced biofuel companies, an industry that has suffered from the economic downturn. For commercial-scale biorefinery projects, $176.5 million will be provided to two or more previous companies that previously received DOE funding.

Last year, three small-scale biorefineries were recognized in Maine, Tenessee and Kentucky, and one of the projects was supported by a grant of up to $30 million towards a cellulosic ethanol plant in Kentucky, by EcoFin (a subsidiar of Alltech) which, in addition to using switchgrass and corn cobs, will also be rely on algae for biodiesel production.

As of March 2009, DOE funded projects numbered six commercial opportunities, with two halted in 2008 due to the economic downturn, and ten demonstration projects, only four of which are currently in development. Some of the companies the DOE funded in 2008 who are currently developing ethanol and other biofuels include Pacific Ethanol, NewPage, Flambeau River Biofuel and Mascoma. In 2007, South Dakota-based Broin-POET, the nation’s largest ethanol maker, began work with the DOE to create a commercial cellulosic ethanol biorefinery.

The program dedicates $130 million to research, $20 million of which is going directly towards ethanol research on high octane E85 fuel, potential impacts of higher ethanol blends and upgrading distribution. The Biomass Program will also be funding research towards sustainability research, compatible biofuels and, specifically, algal biofuels.

Algal biofuel is growing as an industry—the green dream of transforming excess CO2 into energy seems well within grasp, with numerous companies who have successfully transformed it into biodiesel and ethanol. Algae could even serve as an answer to coal emissions, as an algae production facility could potentially absorb emissions from a nearby coal-fired power plant.

Last year, the first commercial algae-to-biofuels facility was brought online by PetroSun and algal biofuel that has continued to grow in popularity. Montana and Utah State Universities are continuing a three-year study on algae-to-biodiesel production and are focusing on identifying algae oil that is 30-50% oil by weight, and Inventure Chemical is working on an algae-to-jet fuel product and has created algae-based fuel in small tests.

In Redmond, Washington a new strategy has been developed by Bionvitas, which uses Light Immersion Technology to grow algae in a much denser fashion. Typically, algae eventually grows dense enough so that sunlight is blocked by sheer surface density—Bionavitas has conquered this by inserting acrylic rods that reflect light to underwater areas up to a meter.

A company researching alternative and renewable energy technologies, Diversified Energy Corporation, is working on a conversion process that will convert renewable oil to fuels that are identical to petroleum. Diversified Energy is also working on a scalable biomass cultivation system using algae. Sapphire Energy, which captured more than half of VC investments in 2008 towards microalgae-biofuel development, promise to deliver one billion gallons of algal biofuel a year by 2025. Sapphire has also had a successful test with Continental Airlines with a half bio-fuel and half-jet fuel blend.

North of Sapphire in San Francisco is Solazyme , a company working to create more efficient algae that will result in improved biofuel yields and who has partnered with Chevron. Successful for already two years at fermenting algae through a process in the dark using sugars as a feedstock in their facilities, Solazyme’s work produces B100 Soladiesel that has lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than soy biodiesel, according to Lifecycle Associates.

"Algae are amazing. The molecules they make naturally would blow your mind. They make long chain hydrocarbons naturally—we’re taking that capability and enhancing that,” said Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of Solazyme.

Algae are a non-food supply that require mostly water and sunlight, can be grown in a multitude of locations, and could become a critical feedstock for replacing fossil fuels. Feedstocks like vegetable oil or animal fat are constrained, ultimately, by overhead costs and availability, but when supplemented with alternatives (like algae) the U.S. can begin to reduce its fossil fuel dependency.