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Algae Oil Poised For World Domination, Eventually

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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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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