The algae biofuel company Solazyme has just opened its first commercial-scale algae biorefinery in Peoria, Illinois, and as the saying goes, if it plays in Peoria, it will play anywhere. Peoria is legendary as a test market for consumer products like Hellman’s (the mayo company) as well as tour rollouts for Bob Dylan and Metallica among others. While Peorians themselves might not get a chance to use algae biofuel any time soon, the location is symbolic of algae’s future role in the mainstream of the U.S. fuel market.
The Algae Biofuel Controversy
The Peoria location is also a bit ironic, given the roaring dust-up around algae biofuel earlier this year that was stoked by several conservative talk show hosts and at least one failed candidate for President. The shouting culminated with a Republican-led effort by Congress to put a damper on the Department of Defense’s ability to purchase algae biofuel and other forms of alternative energy.
So far, that hasn’t interfered with the Navy’s plans to launch a Green Strike Group this summer, using ships and aircraft powered with the help of non-petroleum fuels including an algae biofuel blend (the group is anchored by a nuclear powered carrier, btw).
The controversy obviously hasn’t stopped Solazyme from forging ahead with its plans, either. The company has been pumping out algae biofuel in test quantities, and with the new plant will enable it deliver about two million liters annually.
Solazyme’s New Algae Biofuel Refinery
The facility was partly funded with a Department of Energy grant in order to demonstrate the feasibility of producing algae oil on a commercial scale.
Solazyme has been fermenting batches of algae on a commercial scale since 2007, but the new facility marks the first time that the company will produce algae oil in commercial quantities, in one integrated operation.
The company’s high-efficiency algae system is based on proprietary microalgae that grow without light, enabling them to be cultivated directly in standard industrial fermentation equipment.
Solazyme refers to this system as “indirect photosynthesis,” since the microalgae still depend on nutrients in sugars derived from sun-loving plants.
The Algae Biofuel Juggernaut Rolls On
Though the current drop in fossil fuel prices may slow down the algae biofuel market temporarily, its march to the mainstream seems inevitable.
Along with Solazyme, the Department of Defense has also been working with the algae biofuel company OriginOil in order to develop biofuel standards and certifications that would enable the U.S. algae market to integrate seamlessly with NATO fuel standards.
As another indicator of mainstreaming, algae biofuel is building a long term home base deep in the heart of oil country, through an expanded algae biofuel research program spearheaded by Texas A&M University and other partners.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.