Algae Oil Poised For World Domination, Eventually

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Don’t be surprised if you wake up one day to find that the petroleum economy has been nudged aside by a startling diversity of alternative fuels topped by algae oil. The geopolitical implications alone are staggering given that various forms of algae can be cultivated practically anywhere in the world, but for now let’s focus on a partnership between the Israeli company TransBiodiesel and an American company called Heliae, which is based in our favorite algae biofuel state of the future, Arizona.

How Arizona Does Algae

Before we get into TransBiodiesel and Heliae, we better do a quick recap of the state of algae development in Arizona.

US and Israeli companies partner on algae oil
Proprietary enzyme-based catalyst courtesy of TransBiodiesel.

Those of you familiar with the conservative record of Arizona governor Jan Brewer may be shocked – shocked! – to find that Arizona is front and center in the nation’s race to develop an algae economy, but then again our favorite finger-pointing governor is also a huge fan of the solar industry and the many green jobs it has been producing in her home state, including high tech R&D.

For evidence, just look at the Arizona Solar Innovation Event hosted by Governor Brewer at the State Capitol last spring, or the fact that the state’s massive Agua Caliente solar plant was the largest of its kind to start operations back in 2010.

Arizona’s track record in algae is even more impressive.

Last year, the state won a $15 million Energy Department grant establishing the nation’s first ever shared algae test bed, ATP3, spearheaded by Arizona State University. Just this past October, the University of Arizona won an $8 million Energy Department grant to fine tune an algae farming system that it has developed called ARID for Algae Raceway Integrated Design. The new funds will also enable the university to test ARID under different climate conditions in other regions.

The push to develop algae has also won bipartisan backing among the state’s legislators. A Democrat and Republican have teamed up to sponsor state legislation to promote algae cultivation in Arizona, and US Congressman Matt Salmon (R-AZ-05) has paired himself with Congressman Scott Peters (D-CA-52) to create the first ever Algae Caucus in the US House of Representatives.

TransBiodiesel And Heliae

So, if you were wondering why an Israeli company would come all the way over to Arizona for algae, there’s your answer: that’s where the algae is.

We had a long conversation with TransBiodiesel CEO and founder Dr. Sobhi Basheer last month, during a technology tour of Israel sponsored by the organization Kinetis, and naturally when he mentioned a partnership with Heliae our ears perked up.

Heliae came across our radar last summer, when it announced $28.4 million in financial backing for from a group of private investors (including the Mars family — yes, that that Mars family, weirdly) to scale up its first commercial algae facility in Gilbert, Arizona.

The operation deploys carefully cultivated strains of the microalgae Heliae in the company’s proprietary algae farming and oil extraction platform, Volaris™.

Initial operations kicked off last October with a focus on algae-based health and beauty products, with plans for further expansion around this time next year. That could include specialty chemicals and biofuels, using the same flexible Volaris platform.

That’s where TransBiodiesel comes in. The company specializes in enzyme-based biocatalysts for advanced biodiesel production. Among other advantages, TransBiodiesel’s enzymes are effective without solvents (in conventional biodiesel production, a solvent is used to enhance contact between methanol and the bio-oil feedstock).

Last June TransBiodiesel won a piece of an $11 million chunk of funding from the Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD), which was split among 14 companies. TransBiodiesel’s share will go to integrate its third-generation enzymes with Heliae’s Volaris platform, initially for nutraceutical production.

We Built This Algae Industry!

That brings us full circle around to Arizona’s leadership in algae development. Conservative ideology aside, the fact is that without its publicly funded universities and a hefty contribution from the Federal purse, the algae industry in Arizona would not have the national leadership status it enjoys today.

The BIRD grant extends that status internationally. The organization was established by the US and Israel in 1977, working in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Economy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an arm of the US Commerce Department.

Algae is just one part of Arizona’s newly minted, thriving bioindustry sector, by the way. Here’s a recent piece of the timeline set forth by the state’s leading bioindustry portal, the Arizona Bioindustry Association (AZBio):

February 2012:  Arizona turns 100 and the Bioscience Road Map Turns 10.  Arizona’s Bioscience Industry has grown jobs at 4 times the national average and the number of firms by 27%  in a decade.

March 2012:  Stepping up its role as Arizona’s Bioscience Industry Advocate. AZBio leads a cross industry coalition to amend Arizona’s Open Records  Law and make the state a more industry friendly environment for sponsored research at the State of Arizona’s universities and research institutions.   HB2272 goes from concept to  signature into law in just 45 days.

In the context of globalizing Arizona’s bioindustry, the assist from BIRD for Arizona is no accident. In April 2012, AZBio promoted an event at Arizona State University, which was designed to introduce BIRD to the state’s technology industries.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3149 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

17 thoughts on “Algae Oil Poised For World Domination, Eventually

    • That or they just want to say we tried it can’t be done for 15-20 years. So stop trying and buy our oil. That and they were using a different approach. $100 Mill is not very much from the Exxon pie.

  • The US taxpayer has spent $2.5 billion on algae research. The aquatic species program was a complete failure. Algae raceway ponds have daily contamination and very low productivity. According to raceway grant recipients, federal contarctors and equipment providersthey gave up on ponds years ago and patented their own version of enclosed-systems. Algae research grant recipients stated years ago that “all algae tecnology hurdles have been met. The only thing that is needed is engineering and scale-up”. That means engineering and scale-up not more algae research.

    When the DOE stops funding more algae research and gets out of the way of providing more algae research grants to universities private industry has been ready to build out the algae production industry. If the Congressional Mandate was changed 8 years ago from all research to commercial production is the only way commercial algae production will happen in the US. That is why commercial algae production is more favorable in foreign countriees and NOT the US. Starting another algae caucus is another waste of time. It has been ALL POLITICS with NO PRODUCTION. The DOE needs to get out of the way. According to the DOE less than 20% of all algae technology research projects ever get completed. In order to create value in any algae technology they must be proven to scale outside the lab. There is a huge learning curve on what works in the lab and what can scale on acreage. University researchers are trained to do research not commercial algae production. Sorry DOE, but private industry is scaling-up this industry. The DOE had their chance for the last 60 years.

    • Horse feathers.

      Tea Party Failure.

      Lots of research projects never get finished. One starts with what sounds like an idea that might work. Then the fatal flaw is discovered. No reason to go further.

      That’s research.

      But almost every time something interesting is learned and added to the body of knowledge that eventually solves problems.

      • It’s a pity the amount of $$$ thrown at Fusion energy wasn’t devoted to algae, it would be more likely to produce concrete results by now. Some of the subsidies enjoyed by the bewilderingly profitable fossil fuel energy industry would help too.

  • it has been theorized that majority of the oil we get today were from single-celled algae of eons past. Indeed there is a great advantage of using algae but I haven’t seldom it discussed. I have been pointing this major advantage, but it did not stick with many smart people.

    The biggest disadvantage of using terrestrial plants is the necessity for an evapotranspiration stream. In most plants, more than 90% of the sunlight energy is used in evaporating water and another 7% indirectly in terms of sensible heat transfer. What goes into photosynthesis is about 3%, with plants losing some of their carbohydrates into respiration and senescence (older leaves dying out). So we get about a mere 1% of the sun’s energy for fuel or food or both. Some plants are better than others, I have come across some plants that are in the 2% to 3% sunlight to fuel conversion. But still the bottom line, we lose 97% of the sunlight energy, the biggest chunk of which is through water evaporation. The evapotranspirational stream is a necessity for plants to bring them the nutrients needed for growth.

    It is a different case with algae and most water plants. They do not need the evapotranspirational stream. They are mixed with the nutrients, and the only necessary action is to stir the water, to encourage mixing and gas exchanges to absorb the carbon dioxide from the air. Without the required evapotranspiration, the theoretical yield from algae could be an order of magnitude greater than that of terrestrial plants per unit time. However, with the current type of open pond algae culture that we have, pond evaporation is still happening, and an enclosed pond that prevents evaporation will surely result in overheating of the culture media. Algae are not perfect converters of sunlight into photosynthetic products, but they can produce more products per unit time compared to the best terrestrial plants out there.

    • Just a not-thought out thought….

      Wonder if there’s a use for the extra heat in a enclosed system? Pull it out with heat pumps and put it to use in a different process.

      Very informative comment. Thanks.

      How about growing in salt water? Water supply would not be an issue. The concentrated water removed from the system could be used for sodium and lithium extraction.

      • I have been thinking about the extra heat from sunlight, and the best use would be desalination for now.

        Algae can also be grown in saltwater, brackish water, and sewage water. There are many different species available. So little money and time to test them all but every little bit helps.

        • The air in an enclosed system would be high humidity. Pulling the water out would be a source of fresh water. Pulling heat from that air should be an easy way to harvest the water.

          A heat pump could use coils in the tank to extract heat. Lots of industrial processes need heat. Even pre-heating air/materials would reduce overall energy use.

      • There are a number of problems with this whole discussion.

        For example, regarding economic feasibility of algae for fuel: closed systems and highly purified inputs (algae strains, water, nutrients, air (CO2) stream) are needed because any conventional algae completely overwhelm high lipid-producing strains. Also, the lipid recovery in batch processes is tedious and so expensive. Algae fuels have a long way to go before they may become competitive.

        Regarding excess heat recovery: simple thermodynamics (Carnot heat engine efficiency) tells us that with the temperature differences implied here we anticipate maximum efficiencies of maybe 5%. Then with the energy cost of heat pumps and fluid transport you might be lucky to break 1% efficiency for conversion to any useful work. Include the capital cost for any process of such low efficiency, and it is unlikely to be practical for much of anything.

          • The algae article talks about an improved method for conversion of wet algae to crude oil equivalent which the articles itself says will still not be competitive with oil. Who knows, maybe oil from algae will eventually be a minor contributor.

            The jatropha article says SGB projects 70 million gallons per year of biodiesel from 250 thousand acres of land using its new jatropha cultivar. That’s 280 gallons per acre. Just for comparison, let’s say we replace all 130 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel that we use in the US each year with jatropha fuel. That’s 464 million acres of land, or more than 5 times the total land planted in corn in the US in 2010 (87 million acres).

            Some make the argument that the new cultivars are drought resistant and so can be used on land that would not be usable for corn. But no matter what the cultivar, if you put it under stressed conditions, its yields will drop dramatically from optimum projections.

            My conclusion from all of this is that biofuels will probably contribute to our eventual solution for replacing gasoline, but it won’t be a dominant player. I think James Wimberley’s comment below sums it up pretty well. I would put most of my money into developing energy storage for renewable electricity for an electric vehicle fleet.

          • TC:
            Thanks for your reply.
            It seems we have the battery technology pretty much in the bag for automobiles and light trucks.

            But electrifying trains, heavy trucks, ships, airplanes and heavy equipment seems more daunting.

            Overall do you believe that the current prospects for bio fuels are so unpromising that rail electrification is something we should proceed with like in Europe?

  • The geopolitical transformation, collapsing the dangerous dependence on a few fossil fuel producers and oligopolistic corporations tied to them, does not depend on algae in particular but on renewables in general. Very few countries have neither sun nor wind and most have both, as well as biomass. Hydrothermal, wave and tidal energy are geographically limited, though EGS geothermal would be very widely available if it can be made to work commercially.
    Since algal biofuel is still a long shot, at best years away from large-scale implementation, we can be pretty sure that it won’t replace the current petroleum economy. By the time it’s deployed, land transport will have gone electric. Since renewable electricity ca only get cheaper, there will be no reason ever to go back. The aviation niche is a large one, so there’s room for algae when they are ready.

  • It still won’t scale without disastrous ecological consequences. It is, and will always be, nothing more than an inefficient solar energy collecter. It has a place for small scale projects, but will never run an industrial scale civilization to the tune of 160 exajoules of energy per year, which is what oil now provides.

    Can we move on to a numerate, useful discussion?

  • I have been on the cutting edge of algae derived products for almost 20 years now
    and I’ve seen a lot of new technologies come and go. I still owe Croda Corp (Lorenzo’s oil) a refund on some DHA / EPA that they paid for that was fish oil derived and not Algae derived from 15 years ago. I am sitting on 10 railcars of pyrolysis oil
    that I can’t give away because it has a terrible aroma that the $23 million facility cant correct. You can tell me anything but until it’s universally accepted there will be no universal domination.
    Hollis Howard
    University Products (The Executive Towers)
    Phoenix Az. 85013
    602 386-0371

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