Biofuels Low cost algae biofuel from high tech algae farm.

Published on September 29th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


Algae Farm-In-A-Balloon Could Silence The Algae Biofuel Boo-Birds

September 29th, 2013 by  

A company called Proterro has come up with a super low-cost way to squeeze sucrose out of algae, and if its new pilot-scale facility shakes out successfully, don’t be surprised to hear the sound of garment rending and teeth gnashing from the algae biofuel doubters. That’s because a sucrose feedstock simplifies the biofuel refining process on down through the pipeline, leading to lower costs and, well, no more excuses from certain legislators and pundits who have been trying to cut the algae biofuel market off at the knees.

Algae Biofuel And Sucrose

Since the early days of fermenting ethanol from yeast, the biofuel market has grown along a number of different pathways. A couple of examples we’ve been following are OriginOil, which has developed a way to harvest drop-in biofuel from algae, and the Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute, which has been exploring an enzyme-based biofuel process.

Proterro (not to be confused with the electric bus company Proterra, btw) has taken an approach that shares some characteristics with another company we’ve been following, Joule. It basically stands the biofuel feedstock process on its head. Instead of extracting a mix of sugars or complex hydrocarbons from biomass, Proterro’s system is designed to produce a single, simple sugar, sucrose.

Low cost algae biofuel from high tech algae farm.

Balloons (cropped) by wsilver.

The significance of that development was aptly described by our friends over at Biofuels Digest back in 2010:

Low cost sugars are cited by all as the technology that will transform the biofuels story from a struggle for viability into a race for epic scale. If petroleum parity is the Holy Grail of biofuels, then cheap sugar is the nectar that fills the chalice.

The Proterro Algae Process

The heart of Proterro’s process is a balloon-like, low-cost photobioreactor, where the company’s patented cyanobacteria are grown with the help of sunlight and carbon dioxide. While conventional algae farming is water-intensive, the system significantly reduces the amount of water needed by growing the cyanobacteria on vertically arranged thin films of a composite fabric.

With the water factor cut down to a minimum, the footprint of the system is small compared to conventional algae farming, which allows for more flexibility in site selection.

The proprietary bug (cyanobacteria are a bacteria, not an algae, though due to their aquatic lifestyle they are commonly known as blue-green algae) has been engineered to “sweat” a sucrose solution, which is collected by gravity. That significantly cuts down on the amount of energy needed to dewater the algae to get at the goodies.

Also reducing costs are the off-the-shelf materials needed to build the photobioreactor, primarily polyethylene for the cylindrical shell.

So far, the company has completed the design and cost estimate for a demonstration-scale plant, and a pilot plant has already been commissioned in Florida that will include up to four bioreactors.

As for the algae biofuel nay-sayers, over the past few years the US Navy has taken a lot of hot air from certain politicians and pundits over its intensive pursuit of algae biofuel and other renewable fuels, but as the technology improves we’ve been hearing more and more cricket chirps from those quarters.

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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Gawdzila

    I wish this were lipid-producing algae. Sucrose is great and all, but honestly I see a relatively limited use for ethanol, at least in the transportation market. It could certainly be used to replace natural gas, but it isn’t as energy dense (and therefore less mpg) and it can’t use current oil refining infrastructure the way that “oilgae” can.

    • VirtualGathis

      Check out if you are interested in a lipid producing process. Theirs is a destructive one rather than having the algea “sweat” the lipids. However the plant protien is usable as animal feed so supports both markets food and fuel. They just got it FDA certified for human consuption as well so it further meets food demand.

  • Tamra Fakhoorian

    It’s the quantity, not the quality in cases like this. How much can this system produce per cubic meter? Can it compete with biomaterial commodities already in existence? There are cyanobacteria that can sweat methane, hydrogen, and even lipids but at microscopic amounts given the inputs and infrastucture. Nicely written article, though.

  • Another great post Tina,
    How anyone could be against algal oil or other algal fuels is a total mystery to me. They obviously haven’t a scientific clue! If mankind can avoid near term extinction (and that is getting less likely every day) we will find that Algae may well be one of the main reasons that we do. It was the source of ‘fossil oil’ and could easily supply all of the oil that we need on a carbon neutral basis. Liquid fuels have a place (even in a warming world) that EV’s can ‘t replace. EV’s are fine for ‘local’ transportation but planes, trucks, heavy equipment…etc will need a carbon neutral fuel. Along with efficiency improvements we could get by on about a third the fuel we presently use.

    But hey, what am I thinking???The Lord Monckton and his ilk say “global warming” is a hoax. Yea, and I’m Spider man….

  • None of this matters, what matters is it’s true EROEI or net energy….


  • JamesWimberley

    The feedstock looks as if it´s simply atmospheric CO2, great.

    How does the sucrose get turned into combustible fuels?
    The claimed advantage of a single rather than a mixed product is more relevant to petrochemicals than transport. Current engine fuel is a cocktail of hydrocarbons anyway.

    • beernotwar

      Typically sucrose becomes ethanol. Lipids, which can also be grown in algae efficiently, can be turned into biodiesel and generally with much less energy input. Ethanol requires a fermentation step, and a distillation step. The latter requires boiling a lot of liquid and is thus expensive energy-wise.

  • beernotwar

    At one time I was a huge supporter of biofuels as alternatives for fueling vehicles, but in the end I think the simplicity and universality of EV’s will win over ICE’s running on alternatives. The technology and infrastructure for biofuels will take several years to develop and by then batteries are likely to reach a point where their high capacity and fast recharge rates make EV’s superior. Either that or fuel cell tech will reach maturity.

    But vehicle fuel isn’t the only application for high-efficiency sucrose production so this tech may still have use.

    • JamesWimberley

      Aviation? Shipping? Bulldozers?

    • J_JamesM

      “But vehicle fuel isn’t the only application for high-efficiency sucrose production so this tech may still have use.”

      Absolutely. You’d still need something to fill airplanes, helicopters and Zeppelins with, fuel up old and classic cars with, supply generators with… the list goes on. Liquid, dense, long-term energy storage will always have a niche, no matter how abundant batteries become.

    • Gawdzila

      I think you’re overlooking the lack of infrastructure for electrics as well. We don’t know how much time it will take batteries to reach the necessary recharge rates and storage, and even if they do, charging stations are not exactly widespread. Not only that, but even if they were, they’d be mostly powered by coal at this point. So to make electric cars green, not only do you have to put into place a new “refueling” infrastructure, you also have to replace the entire energy production infrastructure.

      Algae, on the other hand, basically co-opts all of the current liquid fuel infrastructure and turns it green. That’s a pretty attractive proposition.

      Are EVs simpler? Yeah. And eventually they’ll probably take over. But that may take a good long while, and we need a good alternative in the meantime.

      Besides, there are those of us that just love internal combustion 🙂 I don’t think I’ll ever have the same feelings about a Tesla that I do for a Ferrari.

      • Bob_Wallace

        “they’d be mostly powered by coal at this point”

        Another FUDer.

        Coal is now supplying about 40% of US electricity and its contribution will be rapidly dropping as we close around 150 coal plants which can’t economically comply with emissions standards.

        It won’t be long until the roar of a Ferrari will sound so old school. So last century….

    • chemicalengineer53

      It’s a matter of simple economics. Once the price of oil rises, because it is a limited resource, the most efficient renewable will win out. The government subsidies which have distorted the energy market beyond recognition won’t continue, because the government is on the brink of collapse. This is a good thing.
      Remember, the roads only exist, because the govenrment wanted a way to move troops and nukes around after WWII. They are hideously inefficient, and are not a product of the free market.

      • Bob_Wallace

        What country are you posting from? Certainly not the US, we’re in very good shape, nowhere close to collapse except in the minds of a few nutters.
        We, here in the US, were building roads a few hundred years prior to WWII. Perhaps you’re referring to our interstate highway system? Yes, that was build with military use in mind. It’s one of those several times the military has provided us with benefits beyond just protecting us. (Something like the internet you’re now using.)

        Ah, I get it. You’re one of those people who have free market fantasies. I thought you guys had all gone Galt and left us alone.

  • Ivor O’Connor

    lol. Hopefully their dreams don’t POP. There are soooo many jokes to be made.

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