Algae R&D Intensifies
Algae represent one of many available biodiesel feedstocks that can be cost-competitive with fossil fuels, he explained. He described various methods for growing algae in large scale and converting its fats to biodiesel and its sugars to ethanol. These methods include both anaerobic and aerobic fermentation systems, and photo-bioreactor systems that can utilize the CO2 produced by coal-fired power plants or from cellulosic ethanol production, as a carbon source for algae production.
Citing near-term market opportunities for algal fuel in the aviation industry, Thurmond pointed to the first algal fuel tests conducted earlier this year by Continental Airlines and Japan Air. He anticipates commercialization of algal biofuels in 2011–2012 and predicted that “by 2020, algae will become a mainstream commodity for biocrude, ethanol, and renewable diesel fuels.”
Solazyme’s technology for producing renewable oil-based fuels, chemicals, and edible oils is based on a microalgae platform. The company has passed the proof-of-principle stage and is approaching commercial-scale production.
“Algal genomic data is the basis for much of our work,” said Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of Solazyme. He described algae as the original oil producers. They have a strong evolutionary reason to make oil: as aquatic organisms, oil makes them lighter than water, allowing them to float and more readily access sunlight and the CO2 they need for photosynthesis. They are able to convert this chemical energy into oil.
Solazyme has genetically engineered algae to enable the organisms to grow in the dark and to convert biomass into oil through anaerobic fermentation. The company relies on preexisting, industrial, demonstration-scale fermentation infrastructure to test and optimize its process, and has been able to achieve conversion of 70–80% of biomass into oil-based fuel including jet fuel and biodiesel, which has been road-tested for more than a year in an unblended form in unmodified engines.
“The algae we are developing are feedstock-flexible,” said Wolfson. They will produce the same oil whether they are converting sugar cane, switchgrass cellulosics, or waste glycerol. The company plans to market its first products in 2009 to the nutraceuticals and cosmetics industries, and is also pursuing production of edible oils with lower saturated fat content.